FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gestures during a ceremony at the Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi signalled willingness on Friday to shelve a drive for early elections that is tearing apart his Democratic Party (PD) as it faces a strong challenge from eurosceptic populists.
Renzi, who resigned after his proposal to change the constitution was rejected in a referendum last year, has been pushing for a vote by June, around a year ahead of schedule.
But threats by left-wing PD rivals to split the party if he forces elections are jeopardising his return to power, and Renzi said he did not want to be seen as seeking a "re-match" after the referendum defeat.
"Elections can't be the 'second half' after the referendum. When you lose at football you don't try again at water polo," the 42-year-old told Milan's Corriere della Sera newspaper.
In an apparent olive branch to PD traditionalists who want to challenge his leadership, he said he was open to holding a party congress ahead of elections next year, although remained ready for an early vote.
Often accused of running a one-man show while in government, Renzi suggested someone else could be the party's prime ministerial candidate, such as current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who is widely seen as his proxy.
"The next time it might not be me," Renzi said.
The main opposition parties are calling for a snap vote, but the proportional electoral system would probably not give any of them a majority, paving the way for more political instability.
Renzi's change of tack followed recent warnings from several senior figures about the dangers of an early vote.
"Maybe we could think about running this risk if we could foresee a clear victory by one group on the horizon," Industry Minister Carlo Calenda, a close Renzi ally, said this week.
The anti-system 5-Star Movement is polling roughly level with the PD, and would beat it by a wide margin if the PD's left-wing dissenters went it alone, two polls showed this week.
Giorgio Napolitano, a 91-year-old former president who still wields significant political influence, also spoke out on the subject. "In civilised countries, you vote at the natural end (of the legislature) and we still have a year left," he said.
"Early elections have been abused in Italy."
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; editing by Mark Heinrich)