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FILE PHOTO: Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gestures as he talks during a meeting of Democratic Party (PD) in Rome, Italy February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Former prime minister Matteo Renzi triggered uproar in his centre-left Democratic Party (PD) at the weekend by packing the group's electoral list with close allies and shutting the door on internal rivals.
The ruling PD is trailing in the opinion polls ahead of a March 4 national election and looks certain to lose power, with Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc on course to win most seats, albeit falling short of an absolute majority.
Parties have to present their candidates by Monday and there has been enormous friction in all groups as the deadline nears. However, the PD faced particular turmoil amid accusations that Renzi was taking advantage of the vote to neuter his critics.
Support for the PD has eroded steadily over the past two years, with prolonged budget austerity and Renzi's abrasive leadership style grating with voters in the eurozone's third largest economy.
Renzi resigned as prime minister in 2016 after losing a referendum on constitutional reform and then had to face down an internal leadership battle. Many of his opponents' backers found out on Saturday that they had been excluded from the lists.
"This is a mortal blow to the values of the party," said Beppe Lumia, one of a large number of PD parliamentarians barred from re-election.
"Renzi has settled his scores," said Marco Meloni, another PD lawmaker pushed out from his seat.
Renzi faced a tough task. While the PD held almost 300 seats in the outgoing lower house, polls predict it will win between 130-170 this time around, meaning there was a desperate scrabble amongst lawmakers to secure safe spots on the party lists.
"It has been one of the most devastating experiences that I have gone through," Renzi said after spending hours hunched over an excel spreadsheet working out his roster of candidates.
Industry Minister Carlo Calenda, who is not a member of any party but is seen as close to Renzi, took to Twitter to question the selection: "What is the point of not picking serious, well-prepared people who have fought so many important battles," he wrote, reeling off a list of lawmakers left out in the cold.
The PD suffered one schism in 2016, with a group of prominent leftists, including former prime minister Massimo D'Alema, walking out and accusing Renzi of pushing the party to the right of the political spectrum.
With a number of centre-right veterans finding safe berths in the PD lists, these accusations resurfaced, and some of Renzi's critics accused him of readying the party for a pact with Berlusconi in the event of a hung parliament.
Renzi, who has ruled out any eventual coalition deal with Berlusconi, urged calm, saying the PD could yet pull off victory, despite ebbing support in the opinion polls.
"Don't underestimate the PD. We are convinced that we have put together the best list for victory," he told reporters.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Keith Weir)