Italian left picks leader

ROME - Italians voted Sunday in a primary election for the new head of the centre-left Democratic Party with Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi tipped for an easy victory.

Organisers expected turnout to be lower than for the PD's primary in 2009 when Pierluigi Bersani was elected leader given Italians' growing disenchantment with politics.

Bersani had to step aside at the height of Italy's leadership crisis following inconclusive February elections, and the party elected union boss Guglielmo Epifani as its temporary leader in May.

Two other candidates are in the running along with 38-year-old Renzi: Giuseppe "Pippo" Civati, also 38 and reform-minded, and Gianni Cuperlo, 58, a party apparatchik who is considered further to the left than the other two.

Voter surveys predict a Renzi victory of between 56 and 62 per cent, against 28 to 34 for Cuperlo and six to 12 per cent for Civati.

Renzi has vowed to overhaul the PD, which has roots in what was once Europe's largest communist party.

Little known until he challenged Bersani in last year's primary, Renzi has been riding high in the popularity sweepstakes even on the right.

Renzi has pushed for more cuts in spending on Italy's unwieldy bureaucracy - amid widespread anger over high salaries for public officials even during a painful recession - as well as a greater focus on education.

The youthful Renzi has also long campaigned against the middle-aged leadership of his own party and pushed for a more centrist programme, although leftist critics accuse him of being thin on concrete proposals.

His supporters say that if Renzi had won against Bersani for the party leadership in 2012, the PD would have won handsomely in the February general elections.

In a bid to boost turnout, Sunday's balloting was opened to non-members of the PD and to overseas voters, and the voting age was lowered to 16.

Polls were set to close at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT).