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News Analysis: Letta-Renzi showdown holds Italy's political future in balance

by Eric J. Lyman

ROME, Feb. 12 (Xinhua) -- A change of government could be in the cards after attempts at reaching a political detente between Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and Florence mayor center-left leader Matteo Renzi failed to yield any progress.

The increasingly acrimonious relationship between the two men is unusual because they are members of the same political party. But Renzi's rising political star and the deadlock that has crippled the Letta government's ability to pass meaningful reform have set up the possibility of a kind of negotiated change in government not seen in Italy in decades.

Letta became prime minister last April after a two-month stalemate following inconclusive elections. But the coalition supporting his government has never been unified, and Renzi's election as head of Letta's party last year only worsened the problem.

Renzi began criticizing Letta's government even before becoming general secretary of the party, and the volume of his critiques has only risen since then. The meetings between the two men, which got underway Wednesday, were scheduled to broker a compromise that may not pan out.

"Letta is expected to make the case that he should get the time he needs to see through his reforms, while Renzi will argue that he is better suited to make things happen," said Gian Franco Gallo, a political affairs analyst with Hildebrant and Ferrar in Milan. "But the circumstances clearly favor Renzi."

Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome and a frequent public affairs commentator, agreed.

"Renzi is like a shark in that he has to keep moving or he will sink," Pavoncello said. "He's done everything he can to improve his image and visibility and the time is right for him to strike."

New elections are unlikely this year, at least in part because Italy will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union at mid-year, as it is rare for the head of government to change while a country holds that position. That sets the stage for a closed-door meeting to decide Italy's next prime minister.

If it is ultimately decided Renzi should take the job, it could happen by Letta simply stepping down or his government could lose a staged confidence vote in parliament. But experts say the odds of it happening in some form are on the rise.

Backroom deals to decide who will lead Italy were common through the late 1980s, but they have not happened in such an obvious way since then.

"People will complain to say Renzi wasn't elected to the job, but Letta wasn't elected either," Pavoncello said. "These are the desperate circumstances Italy finds itself in."

It is still not clear how whoever emerges from the current negotiations as prime minister will govern and face Italy's endemic problems of anemic economic growth, rising unemployment, and a burgeoning national debt.

Renzi or Letta will have to work with a fractured political party behind them and well short of a majority in any case.

The rest of parliament includes a bloc of nearly a quarter of its membership -- supporters of activist and former comic Beppe Grillo -- withholding support from almost all initiatives, and an opposition party bitterly split between billionaire media tycoon and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Berlusconi's one-time ally Angelino Alfano. Most analysts say that allies of Berlusconi and Alfano are unlikely to agree on anything.

"Once these negotiations (over the prime minister post) are overwith, that's when the real work will start," Gallo said.

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