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Italy's centre-left PD picks new leader a year after election rout

ROME (Reuters) - Nicola Zingaretti, the governor of the central Lazio region, was elected as head of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) on Sunday, one year after the group lost power in a humbling national elections defeat.

FILE PHOTO: Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini (L) and President of Lazio Region Nicola Zingaretti take part in the demolition of a villa built illegally by an alleged Mafia family in Rome, Italy November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

More than 1.6 million PD supporters cast ballots at makeshift voting booths around the country, the party said, a much higher turnout than expected indicating a renewal of interest in the group following its 2018 rout.

Zingaretti, whose brother Luca plays the lead role in the Italian TV police drama Inspector Montalbano, won more than 60 percent the vote, according to early returns. His two rivals, Maurizio Martina and Roberto Giachetti, swiftly conceded.

He is viewed as a moderate and will be tasked with restoring unity to a party that was torn apart by schisms under its previous leader - former prime minister Matteo Renzi, whose confrontational style made him a highly divisive figure.

Accused of not doing enough to tackle poverty, high unemployment and mass immigration, the PD was trounced last year by populist forces, sparking months of internal feuding and soul-searching ahead of Sunday’s primary vote.

“Nicola Zingaretti has won a wonderful and clearcut victory. Now this friendly fire must stop. Our political opponents are not at home but in the government,” Renzi said on Twitter.

The PD primary comes at a time of growing tension within Italy’s coalition government as the far-right League and anti-system 5-Star Movement struggle to overcome deep policy disputes in the face of an unexpected economic slowdown.

In a heartening sign for the left, tens of thousands took to the streets of the financial capital Milan on Saturday to denounce racism and the anti-migrant policies of the League in the largest such protest since the government took office.

The League has surged in the polls on the back of its anti-immigration stance, with a survey in Corriere della Sera daily at the weekend putting its support at 35.9 percent, more than double the 17.4 percent it won in last March’s ballot.

By contrast, support for 5-Star has dropped to 21.2 percent from 32.7 percent, as the group struggles to adjust from life as a vociferous, opposition force to a ruling government party.

Corriere put backing for the PD at 18.5 percent, little changed from a year ago but up from the 16.1 percent it registered in a similar survey at the start of February.

All three PD leadership contenders had ruled out cutting any coalition deals with 5-Star in the future and say early elections would be needed if the current government fell.

Renzi did not back any of the PD candidates, but has dismissed speculation that he might form a breakaway group.

Zingaretti’s first major test will be to lead the party into European parliamentary elections in May. The PD won more than 40 percent of the vote in the last EU ballot in 2014, before falling rapidly out of favour with the electorate.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by David Evans and Bill Berkrot