Letta Renzi: Leadership showdown for Italy's PM

Matteo Renzi (L) with PM Enrico Letta. Photo: December 2013 Matteo Renzi (left) is thought to want the job of PM Enrico Letta (right)

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Italy's centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta faces a crisis meeting amid speculation that a younger party rival wants to take over his job.

Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old mayor of Florence, became Democratic Party leader in December.

The meeting could become an open showdown, with Mr Renzi saying it will be live-streamed.

Mr Letta, 47, who formed a coalition with the centre-right last year, has said he intends to stay in office.

"You don't step down because of gossip, because of power plays and behind the scene activities," the prime minister said hours after a face-to-face meeting with Mr Renzi in Rome on Wednesday.

Analysis

Speculation continues to grow in Rome that, in the current tug-of-war between rival Democratic Party leaders, the centre-left PM Enrico Letta may be forced to give way to the party secretary Matteo Renzi.

The two politicians had a chilly meeting at Mr Letta's office to discuss a possible takeover by the younger and more charismatic Mr Renzi. Although inexperienced at national level, Mr Renzi has been carefully cultivating a "get-up-and-go" image since his election as party leader last December. A final decision will be made by the party leadership on Thursday.

Despite statements by practically all political parties that a new electoral law is necessary, squabbling over the details has so far prevented any agreement.

Italian politics remains sclerotic and Mr Renzi, who attends meetings in shirtsleeves and travels around in a small car or on a bicycle, tries to project a different image. The question remains: can he offer a more viable solution to an economic crisis that has left more than 40% of young people unemployed?

The mayor of Florence, long seen as the rising star of the Democratic Party (PD), has accused Mr Letta of lack of action, with unemployment at its highest level in 40 years and the economy shrinking by 9% in seven years.

Although the prime minister has kept a careful lid on public expenditure, he has not been able to carry out much needed administrative reforms and stimulate economic growth, the BBC's David Willey reports from Rome.

The leader of the New Centre Right, Mr Letta's main ally in the coalition government formed last April, has lent his support to the embattled prime minister without being drawn on the possibility of him being replaced.

Uncertainty over Mr Letta's position has so far had little impact on financial markets, in contrast with the volatility seen before the coalition was formed.

Live streaming

The PD meeting had originally been scheduled for next week but was brought forward to Thursday, with Italian media saying these could be crucial hours for the future of the government.

It is thought the party's 140-member leadership committee may decide whether or not to continue backing the government.

This comes after Mr Letta met Mr Renzi for about an hour at the prime minister's office, the Chigi palace.

At a news conference a few hours afterwards, Mr Letta warned: "Anyone who wants to take my place must spell out their intentions, I'm asking for clarity."

He presented a government reform agenda to the press - one of the arguments he is expected to use at the party meeting.

Matteo Renzi (L) with PM Enrico Letta. Photo: December 2013 Matteo Renzi (left) has made it clear he wants the job of PM Enrico Letta (right)
Matteo Renzi drives away after talks with Enrico Letta in Rome, 12 February Mr Renzi has promised to clarify his intentions at Thursday's meeting

"I have lived every day like it's my last because there were so many who have been trying to kick me out," Mr Letta said.

Meanwhile, Mr Renzi - who has already said he favours an early general election - said he would make his intentions clear at the crisis party talks.

"What I have to say, I will say tomorrow at the leadership meeting at 15:00 [14:00 GMT], openly, in live streaming," Mr Renzi tweeted.

President Giorgio Napolitano, who appointed Mr Letta as prime minister, said earlier that a decision on the fate of the government was up to the PD.

However, the president - who alone has the power to dissolve parliament - has warned that this is not the right time for the country to go to the polls, our correspondent says.

New Centre Right leader Angelino Alfano said Mr Letta could count on a "loyal, correct and fruitful alliance" as long as he retained the backing of the PD.

But he would not be drawn on whether he would continue to support the government if Mr Letta was forced to step down. "We're not taking anything for granted and we will consider this possibility once it is confirmed," he told Canale 5 television on Thursday.

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