Renzi Puts Early Italy Vote on Hold as He Fights Dissent

  • Ex-premier calls for a party congress after internal wrangling
  • Renzi has been pushing for early elections this year

Former premier Matteo Renzi called for a congress of his Democratic Party in a bid to reaffirm his leadership, but stopped short of pushing for early Italian elections this year amid internal dissent.

Renzi told a meeting of party leaders and lawmakers in Rome that “a phase at the head of the party is ending,” indicating that he will likely resign to then seek re-election at the party congress. Current wrangling inside the party “focuses more on quarrels and on accusations than on policies,” Renzi said, adding that it was not up to him to decide when national elections should be held.

A dissident minority and influential factions have opposed Renzi’s drive for a new electoral law and a vote by mid-June. They say the government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, 62, a soft-spoken former diplomat and fellow party member, should stay in power until the next scheduled elections in early 2018.

“The opposition has said: the party leader must confirm his esteem for and loyalty to Gentiloni,” Renzi said Monday as the prime minister sat listening nearby. “I’m happy to do so. Maximum esteem and friendship from the whole Democratic Party.”

Renzi and his entourage have urged early elections this year -- when European elections are already scheduled in Germany, France and the Netherlands -- in a bid to counter the advance of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which wants a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro area. The PD, as Renzi’s party is commonly referred to in Italian, and Five Star are neck and neck in opinion polls.

Deadline Stress

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of a dissident faction and a former PD leader, took Renzi to task for seeking an early vote. “Italians have problems of their own and they don’t like to be stressed by problems and deadlines, which for them have nothing to do with their daily lives,” Bersani told the Rome meeting. “The government should last until parliament’s term ends.”

The Rome meeting backed Renzi’s call for a congress as soon as possible, with 107 votes in favor and 12 votes against. The congress may be held as early as April.

The uncertainty helped widen the yield spread between Italy’s 10-year bonds and their German equivalent last week to the most since February 2014, when the country was hit by political turmoil that thrust Renzi into the premier’s post. Markets have also been worried about French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s proposal to leave the euro area, a move that would rattle France’s neighbor to the south.

“Renzi is taking a big gamble here with the unity of his party,” Marc Ostwald, a strategist at ADM Investor Services International Ltd. in London, said in a telephone interview before the meeting. “I think the markets would prefer to see Gentiloni last to the end of parliament’s term, i.e. early 2018. People don’t welcome an Italian election on top of the other ones.”

It is up to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, 75, whether to call early elections. He has called for differences between the electoral systems for the two houses of parliament to be ironed out before new elections.

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