by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Feb. 17 (Xinhua) -- Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was scrambling to keep the political party he represents intact this week, ahead of a party congress that will help decide who will lead the party into the next national elections.
The 42-year-old Renzi has been a divisive figure atop the country's largest political party, the Democratic Party (PD), where many of the party's old guard oppose him for seeking to transform the traditional left-wing party into more of a modern, centrist coalition.
Renzi stepped down as prime minister in December after losing a national referendum on a constitutional reform he championed. But he is still the head of the Democratic Party. On Sunday, PD leaders will meet to discuss when to hold a party vote on who should lead it going forward. Renzi is pushing for the vote to take place as early as April, while his rivals in the party want it to be scheduled for later in the year.
As things stand, Renzi's main challenger will probably be Michele Emiliano, a former mayor now serving as the governor for the southern region of Puglia. Enrico Rossi, the governor of Renzi's native region of Tuscany, is another possibility. Andrea Orlando, who served as Renzi's minister of justice, is a dark horse candidate. But experts said Renzi remains a strong favorite.
"If the vote is held in April or May, Renzi would almost surely win," Gianfranco Pasquino, an author, commentator, and retired political scientist from the University of Bologna, said in an interview. "His rivals would like more time to help consolidate their support."
With the decision over the date looming, some of the party's leadership -- most notably, former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema and Pier Luigi Bersani, who preceded Renzi as the party's general secretary -- have renewed threats to break away from the Democratic Party.
On Wednesday, Renzi called on his rivals to keep the party intact. "We need to come together and pick a leader so we can face the country's challenges," Renzi said. But his rivals were not so sure. "Are we the Democratic Party or the Party of Renzi?" Bersani asked.
The next party secretary will select most of the party's candidates for parliament in the next national election, and fear among some is that if Renzi retains the post he could leave many figures who oppose him off the list.
If D'Alema, Bersani, and the other rivals form their own party, they would select their own list of candidates. But the splinter party would also siphon votes away from a Renzi-led Democratic Party, perhaps preventing the PD from winning in the upcoming national vote and almost surely stopping it from reaching the 40-percent threshold that would give any winning party, according to current electoral law, an electoral bonus of extra seats in parliament.
The date for the PD's leadership vote will also have an impact on the date of the national election. An early decision would keep the door open for an election this year, which Renzi favors. If the vote is held in October or November, the national election would have to take place in 2018, as originally scheduled.
Another factor complicating things is the populist, European Union skeptic Five-Star Movement led by comedian and activist Beppe Grillo. If a national vote were held today, pollsters say a united Democratic Party would likely edge out the Five-Star Movement, with both earning around 30 percent of the vote. If the Democratic Party were divided, however, it could hand victory to Grillo's allies, who had said they'd call for a national referendum on whether or not Italy should continue to use the euro.
"The Democratic Party has to worry about two things: it's own divisions and the prospects for the Five-Star Movement," Federico Castornia, president of the think tank Cultura Democratica (Democratic Culture), told Xinhua. "They should be focused on the Five-Star Movement more than they are, but the internal battles are overwhelming."