by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, March 1 (Xinhua) -- Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi now seems poised to retake control of the remnants of what had been the dominant Italian political party of the last generation, but his path to returning to Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister's formal residence, remains as fraught with obstacles as ever.
Over the weekend, Italy's Democratic Party (PD) voted to hold a national primary to select its next general secretary on April 30. Renzi pushed hard to have the vote take place early in the year, and with Sunday's decision, he got his wish.
But the decision also sparked the departure of most of the leading figures of the party's leftist old guard, including the former prime minister Massimo D'Alema, the former leader of the Democratic Party's delegation in parliament Roberto Speranza, former party head Pier Luigi Bersani, and the head of the regional government in Tuscany Enrico Rossi.
Members of the new party, to be called Democratic Progressives, had been pushing for the PD national primary take place later in the year to give them more time to consolidate power within the PD in order to oppose Renzi's more centrist policies. When they lost that battle, they went their own way.
"We are all here because we have an adversary," Rossi said in public remarks, "We can only defeat them by building up the left."
With D'Alema, Speranza and the others gone, Renzi becomes the overwhelming favorite to win the April 30 vote that will select the new party secretary. Polls show that if the vote were held today, Renzi would earn two-thirds of the vote, with Michele Emiliano, head of the southern region of Pulia, running a distant second.
"Right now, it looks like Renzi will probably win the primary in the first round, avoiding a runoff," Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of John Cabot University, said in an interview.
It is too early to speculate whether the PD, with some support drained away by the defection of D'Alema, Speranza and the other high-profile officials, would be able to beat the populist Five-Star Movement led by comic and activist Beppe Grillo. In opinion polls before the weekend vote, a united PD was seen as having a slight lead over the Five-Star Movement.
But even if the smaller PD managed a win, it is not certain Renzi would be able to form the new government. "A lot depends on how many people turn up to vote in the April 30 primary," Carlo Marletti, a political analyst and sociologist with the University of Turn, told Xinhua, "If turnout is low, Renzi's critics could argue he didn't have a real mandate."
Marletti also said that if the Democratic Progressives, the splinter party, did well in their first national vote, they could have a voice in whether Renzi could have a pathway to the prime minister's office. "If they had a strong result, they could refuse to work with Renzi," Marletti said.
If that happened, it's possible the current prime minister Paolo Gentiloni could stay on in that role. Marletti mentioned current minister of culture and former PD head Dario Francschini as a possible compromise figure in that scenario, while Pavoncello speculated it could be Minister of Justice Andrea Orlando.
"Renzi wants to return to the role of party secretary is a goal of his, but it remains to be seen if that gives him a clear pathway to the prime minister role," Pavoncello said.