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ROME (Reuters) - Italy's former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, called on rivals on Wednesday not to quit the ruling Democratic Party (PD), after speculation mounted that a group of senior figures were poised to break away.
Renzi said this week he would hold a PD leadership contest, hoping to reassert his authority after his defeat in last year's referendum on constitutional reform and thereby put himself in a position to regain power at the next national election.
His many internal party foes, who accuse him of being authoritarian and dragging the PD away from its leftist roots, had called for a leadership battle, but say Renzi is looking to speed up the race in an effort to trigger rash early elections.
"The schism has already happened," said former PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, one of Renzi's fiercest critics. "The question is, are we the Democratic Party or the Party of Renzi?"
PD chiefs are due to meet on Sunday to schedule the vote. Renzi is pushing for a ballot in April or early May, seeing this as the best way to prepare for parliamentary elections that he wants held at the latest in September.
In a message to supporters on Wednesday, he urged his opponents to show up at the weekend meeting and not walk away.
"The verb for the Congress and the primaries is not 'go away!' but 'come!', bring ideas, bring dreams, bring criticism," said Renzi, adding it was important to pick a leader swiftly so the party could focus on the real problems facing Italians.
Bersani and other PD dissidents, such as former prime minister Massimo D'Alema, say the party needs more time to ponder its future direction and believe the legislature should carry on until its natural end in early 2018.
Overshadowing the bitter squabbling is a wider discussion over Italy's electoral law. Under current law, Renzi has the power to select many of the PD candidates, meaning his internal foes might not make it into the next parliament.
If they form a rival party, the critics would be able to create their own list of candidates and would also bleed votes from the PD, hobbling Renzi's chances of regaining power.
Party dissidents say it is rash to rush to the polls with the current electoral law because pollsters say it will almost certainly only throw up a hung parliament.
According to latest opinion polls, the PD remains Italy's most popular party, with support running at around 30 percent, just ahead of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
Pollsters say a rival force including the likes of Bersani and D'Alema could take up to 10 percent of the vote from the PD.
The one man who has said he will stand against Renzi, Michele Emiliano, the PD governor of the southern region of Puglia, said on Wednesday Renzi needed to be more conciliatory.
"Renzi has not done anything to keep anyone in the fold. The (PD) trains have left the station, but for now, they are heading in opposite directions," he told reporters.
Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Larry King