Rome

>>>ANSA/ Renzi says it's 'game over' for Berlusconi

Florence mayor throws down gauntlet in PD race

>>>ANSA/ Renzi says it's 'game over' for Berlusconi

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, September 12 - Florence Mayor Matteo Renzo threw down the gauntlet in the race to become Italian centre-left leader Wednesday night and ruled out he would have to face their arch-enemy Silvio Berlusconi if he wins. "Yes, of course I want to become leader of the Democratic Party," Renzi said on Italy's top-rating late-night current affairs show, Porta a Porta, where he was interviewed as the sole guest. "But I don't think I'll be coming up against Berlusconi. "It's game over for him". In what Italian media judged an impressive performance, the mayor known for his pledge to 'scrap' the PD old guard criticised party colleague and Premier Enrico Letta for giving into Berlusconi on the centre-right leader's flagship electoral pledge, the abolition of a property tax for all Italians, rich and poor. "I would have kept it for those who can afford to pay it," he said. He promised "radical change" if he become party leader. Three-time premier and media mogul Berlusconi is facing ejection from the Senate after a tax-fraud conviction. His centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party was quick to scoff at Renzi's claim Thursday, saying their charismatic leader would continue to guide them even if, as appears inevitable, he is removed from the Senate. "Berlusconi will keep his place as centre-right leader," said PdL heavyweight and former transport minister Altero Matteoli. The PdL's head in Tuscany, the region around Florence, said "it's not up to Renzi to decide when the game is over for anyone. "It won't be up to the magistrates either, but the sovereignty of the people, called to decide winners and losers in any election". Renzi is widely tipped to head the PD against the PdL in an election that was supposed to come in about a year, after Letta completed an ambitious but limited programme of reforms including changing the electoral law that produced an inconclusive result in February and led to the unprecedented PD-PdL match-up after two months of stalemate. But the alliance's already fragile stability is being threatened by the PdL's vow to topple it if the PD votes, as it says the law forces it to do, to implement Berlusconi's ejection from the Senate. That could mean an election this winter, before the PD's congress, meaning hot favourite Renzi would not have been elected leader by then. But the Italian media are speculating Renzi might be allowed to replace caretaker leader Guglielmo Epifani even without a full congress vote. Whatever happens, Renzi's only real leadership challenger looks like being Letta, especially if the premier can boast other solid achievements to regain the confidence of a widely disenchanted electorate. Renzi had another, even sharper swipe at Letta Wednesday night, hinting that he might be "thinking too much about hanging on to his seat (as premier)". This brought complaints from the small anti-Renzi factions in the fractious PD, and Renzi was called to a fence-mending meeting with the premier Thursday. Opinion polls say the telegenic 38-year-old mayor, who has been likened to a young Tony Blair, is Italy's most popular politician, and he is believed to have broad cross-party appeal. The only figure on the other side with similar political and media savvy is Berlusconi, Italian commentators say. Despite his age, 76, a raft of other legal troubles and the prospect of spending a year under house arrest, the canny old campaigner is said to have enough fire in his belly for a last stand.

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