* Renzi takes nearly 70 pct of vote - preliminary results
* Renzi will have significant influence over govt
* Tricky relationship looms with centre-left PM Letta
* Source close to Renzi says "government will last"
By Steve Scherer
ROME, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi won aprimary vote to become leader of Italy's centre-left DemocraticParty (PD), preliminary results showed on Sunday, giving himinfluence over the fragile coalition government and the timingof the next elections.
As secretary of the PD, the brash 38-year-old will likelyhave to tone down the rhetoric calling for the ouster of theparty's top brass that has helped make him one of the country'smost popular political figures in the past two years.
As head of the group, his challenge will be to reconciledeep party divisions that undermined what polls suggested wouldbe a certain victory in the February national election, leavingthe bloc without control of both houses of parliament.
Data from two-thirds of the 9,000 polling booths showedRenzi took 68 percent of the vote in a three-way race to leadthe largest party in parliament and in the ruling coalition.
About two-and-a-half million people cast a primary ballot,Renzi said, which was far more than envisioned and is a clearsign voters want to renew the party founded six years ago bymerging elements of the former communist party and left-leaningcentrists.
Renzi will not join the government, but is likely to leadthe PD into the next election as its candidate for primeminister. Primary rivals Gianni Cuperlo, a former communist, andthe web-savvy Pippo Civati acknowledged Renzi's leadership intheir concession speeches.
"This is the end of group of party leaders, not of theleft," Renzi told his supporters in a victory speech inFlorence, after promising to unify the party. "Now it's up to anew generation, my friends. It's our turn to drive the car."
For his charisma and goal to remodel Italy's left, theFlorence mayor is sometimes compared to Britain's Tony Blair,but his direct speaking style and media savvy also drawcomparisons to the 77-year-old centre-right leader SilvioBerlusconi.
With the centre right in disarray after former primeminister Berlusconi's tax-fraud conviction and a subsequentparty split, Renzi has the opportunity to recast the PD toattract some disillusioned right-wing voters.
Polls have shown Renzi is popular even among centre-rightvoters. Lower taxes - a warhorse for Berlusconi for two decades- are a central part of his programme, as are promises to changethe electoral law, overhaul labour rules, and eliminate theprivileges of the political class.
"GOVERNMENT WILL LAST"
Two weeks ago, Renzi said that if he won the primary hewould call on the government to step up its reform efforts orelse declare it "finished". But few, even among his loyalists inparliament, say it would be to Renzi's advantage to seekelections now, as he needs time to unify the party behind him.
For his part, Letta has insisted that the primary will makehis government stronger, and Renzi and the premier will meet asearly as Monday, government and party sources told Reuters.
"The government will last until at least 2015, if notlonger," one source close to Renzi told Reuters.
"With the new secretary, Matteo Renzi, we will work togetherwith team spirit that will be productive for the country and thecentre left," Letta said in a statement after Renzi's victory.
Apart from many still-pending economic reforms, thegovernment faces an unpredictable new challenge following lastweek's move by the Constitutional Court to reject parts of thecurrent voting law.
The ruling leaves Italy with a proportional voting structurethat would virtually guarantee short-lived coalitions and worsenthe stalemate that has afflicted the system in recent years. Itwill take careful negotiations to build support, also outsidethe PD, for new election rules.
Though Renzi appears to have won a decisive victory with thegeneral public, inside the party he will still need to buildsupport among those suspicious of his unabashed ambition, hiscentrist past and his forceful and - for the left - unorthodoxmedia presence.
Earlier this year, Renzi went on a TV talent show popularwith teenagers and broadcast by Berlusconi's network. Dressed ina black leather jacket, at one point he gave a thumbs-up thatearned him the nickname "Fonzie", a reference to the laid-backhero of the U.S. sitcom "Happy Days".
Renzi embraced it, posing in a leather jacket for a magazine and explaining: "I want everyone to hear my message".
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- Politics & Government
- Matteo Renzi