Former prime minister Matteo Renzi was poised to win the leadership of Italy’s ruling Democratic Party (PD) in a primary election Sunday, propelling him back to the forefront of the national political scene.
Renzi, 42, resigned as prime minister in December after Italians overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional referendum aimed at streamlining the parliamentary system.
Nearly 1.5 million people had voted three hours before the polls closed, organisers said. This was lower than earlier primary contests but not as much as some analysts had predicted, given what many called a lacklustre campaign.
A high turnout is expected to had a large mandate to Renzi. The roughly 10,000 polling stations — mainly stands in the streets, but also in cultural centres and bars — closed at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT), and final results are expected later in the evening.
Renzi himself had set the bar for success at one million voters, and an internal vote conducted by the PD this month suggested a clear Renzi victory after he scored 66.7 percent, with 25.3 percent for Orlando and eight percent for Emiliano.
“It’s a festival of democracy,” Renzi told reporters after casting his vote.
“I hope that others will do the same, it doesn’t hurt,” Renzi added, taking a swipe at the rival Five Star Movement, which is running close to the PD in opinion polls but which decided to hold its primary contest via an online vote.
His two rivals on Sunday are considered farther to the left: Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Michele Emiliano, who heads the southern Puglia region.
Emiliano said the election would be a flop if fewer people voted this time around, while Orlando said that fewer than two million cast ballots would signal a failure.
When he first took over the leadership in December 2013, Renzi won the backing of close on 68 percent of 2.8 million voters.
But in the aftermath of his referendum’s defeat and facing a rebellion from the left wing of his centre-left party, Renzi stepped down as party leader in February with the aim of regaining legitimacy in a future vote.
The vote was open to all Italians over 16 years old, EU citizens residing in Italy and non-EU foreigners with valid residency permits — on condition of paying a donation of at least two euros.
– Railing against ‘stagnation’ –
Lorenzo De Sio, a professor of political sociology at the Luiss University in Rome, said the turnout would be crucial in determining Renzi’s legitimacy.
“Rather than a competition, we’re looking at a process of legitimisation, a sort of crowning of Renzi as leader of the PD. We can expect a huge Renzi victory but with weak voter turnout. People on the left do not seem to be mobilised,” he said.
“If participation rates are around a million people or less, Renzi’s legitimisation won’t be strong; if it is between 1.5 and two million, he will wind up in a stronger position,” he said.
The winner of the vote will lead the party during legislative elections slated for spring 2018, unless parliamentarians come to an agreement on electoral reforms before then and call for early elections.
During the only televised debate between Renzi and his two competitors, the former prime minister said he would do “everything to bring back energy, momentum and vigour to the country”, and railed against “stagnation that seems to be blocking political and institutional life” since the referendum.
In addition to the contrasting styles, with Orlando and Emiliano generally more reserved than the exuberant Renzi, the debate laid bare key differences over national politics.
Renzi disagrees with his two challengers on a wealth tax, which he opposes.
If the spring election outcome requires the formation of a coalition following the legislative elections, Orlando and Emiliano have said they would seek to govern with left wing defectors or other parties on the left.
Renzi, meanwhile, has not ruled out forming an alliance with centre-right leader and former premier Silvio Berlusconi.