ROME (AP) — Former Premier Matteo Renzi regained the Democratic Party leadership, handily winning a Sunday primary that he hopes will bolster the center-left's ability to counter growing support for populist politicians in Italy ahead of national elections.
"Forward, together," Renzi tweeted, invigorated by his comeback after a stinging defeat in a December reforms referendum aimed in part at streamlining the legislative process led him to resign as head of Italy's government and as leader of his squabbling party.
"The alternative to populism isn't the elite," Renzi told supports late Sunday after unofficial results indicated he got more than 70 percent of votes cast nationwide. "It's people who aren't afraid of democracy."
Some politicians predicted that the primary win would embolden Renzi to maneuver seeking to bring national elections ahead of their spring 2018 due date as part of his effort to rein in increasing popularity for the populist, anti-euro 5-Star Movement.
But a top Renzi ally sought to counter that idea.
"The government's horizon is 2018. Starting tomorrow, we'll work with Premier (Paolo) Gentiloni. Gentiloni's government is our government," said Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina.
Renzi's party is still the main force in Italy's center-left coalition government, but opinion polls indicate it is no longer the country' most popular. Overtaking the Democrats in recent soundings was the 5-Star Movement, whose leader, comic Beppe Grillo, wants a crackdown on migrants, rails against European Union-mandated austerity and opposes Italy belonging to the euro single currency group.
Throughout the day, some 2 million voters lined up at makeshift gazebos in piazzas and street corners, at ice cream parlors, cafes or local party headquarters around the country to cast ballots for a new head of the splintering Democratic Party, whose rank-and-file range from former Communists to former Christian Democrats.
Primary voting was open to anyone 16 years of age of older — the oldest voter was reported to be 105. Holding Democratic Party membership wasn't a requirement.
Trailing far behind in the votes were Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Puglia region Gov. Michele Emiliano.
In addition to countering the challenge of 5-Star's popularity, to regain Italy's premiership, Renzi will have to contend with malcontents and defectors in his own party. A group of mostly former Communists split from the Democrats and formed a small, new party in resentment over both Renzi's centrist leanings and his authoritarian style.
Renzi's reputation in politics is one of ruthlessness. In early 2014, he promised then-premier and fellow Democrat Enrico Letta that he wouldn't undermine the government, only to shortly afterward engineer Letta's downfall. Renzi then became premier.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella recently insisted that electoral laws must be overhauled before new elections. Currently, there is one set of electoral rules for the lower Chamber of Deputies and a completely different one for the Senate, a consequence of the failed reform referendum.