By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called on Monday for a leadership contest in his ruling Democratic Party, opening the way for a showdown with his many enemies in the PD ahead of approaching national elections.
Renzi quit as premier in December after suffering a heavy defeat in a referendum on constitutional reform and wants early elections held this year in an effort to regain power.
However, his drive for a national ballot has been slowed by calls from within the faction-riddled PD for him to step aside as party secretary, a post he has held since December 2013.
"I think it's common sense to accept the idea of holding a Congress before a national vote," Renzi told PD bigwigs, referring to the assembly where the party leader is elected. "A cycle is closing in the leadership of the PD," he said.
Renzi said it was not up to him to decide when national elections would take place. The natural end of the legislature is early next year, but Renzi has pushed for a vote by June, arguing the debt-laden country needs a new political impetus.
The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which wants a referendum on membership of the euro currency, is also eager for early elections, with opinion polls showing it neck-and-neck with the center-left PD, well ahead of other opposition parties.
However, parliament has yet to agree on a new electoral law and three senior political sources told Reuters they expected newly appointed Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni to see out the legislature, regardless of what happened within the PD.
The date for the Congress will be decided this coming weekend. One of Renzi's allies told Reuters that the center-left chief was eager to wrap up the leadership race in April, adding that he had not lost hope of holding a national vote in June.
A former PD leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, urged the party on Monday to rule out any early ballot to calm jittery markets.
"Can we leave a question mark hovering over the fate of the government? We can't do that ... it will cause trouble for Italy," he said.
A source close to Renzi said private polls showed he would easily defeat expected challengers, including Michele Emiliano, the PD governor of the southern region of Puglia, who says the party has shifted too far to the right in recent years.
"If the others win, then I will be the first to congratulate them. The confrontation between us will be fascinating," said Renzi, who became prime minister in early 2014 after ousting the then incumbent, Enrico Letta, in an internal party coup.
Presenting himself as a "demolition man", Renzi promised to overhaul hidebound Italy, whose economy has repeatedly underperformed that of other euro zone countries.
But his reforms failed to spark a swift revival, with youth unemployment stuck close to 40 percent and economic growth in 2016 set to be the lowest in the euro zone, bar Greece.
"Inequality has grown and people don't accept it," Bersani said. "Is it true or not that we have lost some of our people, our voters, the middle classes? Is it true or not that a part of the population can't stand us?"
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Steve Scherer and Alison Williams)