Bersani leads after Italy center-left primary
By Catherine Hornby
ROME (Reuters) - Pier Luigi Bersani, head of Italy's Democratic Party, led his main rival Matteo Renzi in a primary to pick the center-left candidate in next year's election, early counting indicated on Sunday, setting the stage for a final runoff vote next week.
With almost a third of the vote counted, Bersani had about 44.6 percent, ahead of Renzi, the 37 year-old mayor of Florence, who was campaigning as a moderniser, on 36.5 percent, according to party officials.
Nichi Vendola, the openly gay head of the left-wing Left, Ecology, Freedom party was in third place with 14.6 percent, while the remaining two candidates, Bruno Tabacci and Laura Puppato trailed far behind.
Assuming the result is confirmed, Bersani and Renzi will compete in a runoff round on December 2.
The outcome of the second round will eliminate a major element of uncertainty dogging Italian politics ahead of spring elections to choose a successor to Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat government.
The center-left alliance is well ahead in opinion polls for the parliamentary election, although uncertainty over what electoral system will be used in the ballot means that it is unclear whether it will be able to form a government without seeking allies from centrist parties.
Even so, the winner of the primary will be in pole position to take over Monti's efforts to control strained public finances and tackle a year-long recession.
Support for former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's deeply divided center-right People of Freedom party (PDL) has crumbled to less than half than it recorded in the last election in 2008. Continued...