ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Matteo Renzi promised on Monday to redouble his efforts to reform Italy and shake up his divided party after anti-establishment and euro-sceptic parties posted strong results in local elections.
Centre-left candidates backed by Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) won five out of seven regions at stake, maintaining its overall position before the vote, but PD support fell sharply from last year’s European elections and it lost the northwestern region of Liguria.
“After yesterday’s vote, we will carry on with even more determination in the process of renewing the party and changing the country,” Renzi said in a written statement.
They were his first comments after Sunday’s elections which were widely seen as a setback for the 40 year-old prime minister but which he described as “very positive”.
The result dented the supremacy that Renzi has held over Italian politics since becoming prime minister thanks to an internal party coup in February 2014.
PD officials said the elections, which still leave the party in control of 17 of Italy’s 20 regional governments, showed support for Renzi’s agenda. But while the PD gained Naples, they could not hide their dismay at losing Liguria, partly due to a breakaway leftist candidate who split the leftwing vote.
“Obviously the result in Liguria is bitter for us,” said PD deputy secretary Debora Serracchiani.
Renzi’s reference to “renewing the party” may be an ominous signal for a sizeable minority of PD rebels who say he has moved the party too far to the right and oppose his efforts to reform the labor market and education system.
The anti-immigrant Northern League, which wants to scrap the euro, benefited from public concern over refugee arrivals in southern Italy to score a decisive win in the northeastern Veneto region. It also expanded outside its main heartlands.
Together with a strong showing for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, the result confirmed the appeal of anti-system parties in the euro zone’s third-largest economy after years of recession and Brussels-inspired austerity.
While the results are not directly comparable, the PD won little more than half the record 41 percent that Renzi gained in last year’s European elections, held a few months after he snatched power by ousting his predecessor and PD rival Enrico Letta.
The regional elections have no direct impact on national politics but Renzi needed a convincing result to maintain momentum for labor, education and constitutional reforms which have met fierce resistance from trade unions, the political opposition and the left wing of the PD.
“From now on, it will be harder for Renzi to govern,” said the daily La Stampa in a front page editorial.
A low turnout of just 54 percent also demonstrated disillusionment among many voters after a campaign dominated by corruption scandals and internal party squabbling.
Renzi left Italy unexpectedly on Monday for a short visit to Italian troops serving in Afghanistan.
Matteo Salvini, the Northern League’s 42-year-old leader, emerged as one of the strongest winners. A blunt speaker who recently posed bare-chested in bed for an Italian magazine, Salvini has become the leading figure of Italy’s right.
His popularity is eclipsing that of the 78-year-old ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who has struggled to hold his Forza Italia party together.
On Monday, Salvini said he was already looking to national elections due in 2018. “I am ready to challenge Renzi tomorrow morning. Voters who choose the League are choosing a movement with courage which I think will govern Italy,” he told Canale 5 television.
Editing by David Stamp