Italian Democrats picking party chief; Renzi expected to win


ROME (AP) — Italians voted Sunday for a new Democratic Party chief in a primary that is expected to return Matteo Renzi to its leadership, just as the splintering party ponders how to counter a growing challenge from anti-euro populist politicians.

The Democrats are currently the main force in Italy’s coalition government. Citizens lined up Sunday at makeshift gazebos in piazzas and street corners or local party headquarters around the country to vote. It was unclear when results will be announced.

Renzi quit as the Democrats’ leader after a stinging defeat on a national referendum on reforms he championed while premier. In December, he had already resigned as the head of his center-left government, since he had staked his survival on winning the referendum.

Resenting Renzi’s authoritarian style and centrist leaning, hardliners split from the Democrats and formed a small, new party. Some Democrats have predicted still more prominent party figures will bolt if Renzi wins the primary.

Yet he was widely expected to prevail over his two challengers, Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Michele Emiliano, governor of the southern Puglia region.

National elections are due in spring 2018, but Renzi, eager to regain the premiership, has been maneuvering for a possible early election.

Opinion polls have indicated that the populist 5-Star Movement — which is buoyed by citizen impatience over a flood of refugees and resentment over European Union austerity demands — has eclipsed the Democrats as Italy’s potentially largest-vote gathering party.

Renzi’s legacy from 2 ½ years of being Italy’s premier is scanter than he hoped. Labor reforms he shepherded through Parliament failed to get the Italian economy significantly growing again.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella recently insisted again that the nation’s electoral law must be overhauled before a new election. Right now, there is one set of electoral rules for the lower Chamber of Deputies and a completely different one for the Senate.

After voters gave the referendum the thumbs-down, recently revised electoral rules only apply to the Chamber of Deputies, leaving the Senate to be elected under old rules. Italian politicians, among them the Democrats, are squabbling over how to come up with yet another set of electoral rules.