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Rising star could take guidance of Italy

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 6:03 p.m.

ROME — Abandoned by an ambitious party rival, Italian Premier Enrico Letta announced on Thursday he is resigning after losing essential support for his battered, 10-month-old coalition government.

Hours earlier, Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old leader of Letta's Democratic Party, rallied party executives to an overwhelming vote for a change of command in the premier's office. The Florence mayor is a fast-rising star in Italy's political firmament and has been maneuvering for months to become an unusually young premier.

Renzi said it was time for ‘‘radical change” to pull economically stagnant and politically unstable Italy out of its “quagmire,” insisting that Italy needs more decisive leadership than Letta has offered.

Milan's market barely reacted to the development, and was down by barely 0.17 percent.

Even in a country known for its political tumult, the last several years have been bumpy. Renzi would be the fourth premier since late 2011, as the country scrambled to regain the confidence of skeptical markets with tough austerity measures.

Making no comment on his bitter defeat, Letta said he would formally hand in his resignation on Friday. He has defended his short tenure, insisting in a last-ditch pitch to fellow Democrats on Wednesday that Italy's economy has just started growing again, even if slowly.

President Giorgio Napolitano, who has staunchly opposed calling for new elections, could conceivably ask Letta to try to win a vote of renewed confidence in Parliament to make the legislature, and not the Democratic Party, the arbiter of the premier's fate. But without most of his Democrats, the largest party in Parliament, Letta's chances of commanding a legislative majority appeared doomed.

Napolitano would likely ask Renzi to try to form a coalition solid enough to command a working majority in Parliament that could quickly enact pressing electoral reform and measures to gain jobs, especially with youth unemployment hovering around 40 percent.

Those consultations will bring Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-tainted former premier, back onto center-stage. Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party is Italy's second-largest party after the Democrats, and his lawmakers' backing will be crucial to Parliament's effectiveness.

Forza Italia said Berlusconi will lead his party's delegation to the presidential palace to confer with Napolitano.

Only last month, he made a deal with Renzi to back electoral reform. Both Renzi and Berlusconi are betting that overhauling the voting system so that the ballot box will yield clear winners, instead of the frequently fragmented coalitions it has so far.

Whether Renzi's power grab might alienate potential voters is a big unknown. Renzi told his party's executives he realizes there is a ‘‘risk he could be burned.”

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