(Repeats from Tuesday; no changes to text)
* Referendum loss prompted Dec. 7 resignation
* Rivals are vying to take over party
* Renzi still major asset to party, polls show
By Steve Scherer
ROME, Dec 20 Three days after resigning as
Italian prime minister and before his successor took office,
Matteo Renzi typed a late-night Facebook post from his family
home near Florence that seemed to cast doubt on his future.
"I have no seat in parliament, no salary, no pension... I'm
starting over," he wrote.
Since stepping down on Dec. 7 after a crushing referendum
defeat over his flagship constitutional reform, newspapers have
conjured up images of Renzi sitting in rush-hour traffic while
driving his three kids to school, writing his memoirs and
entertaining lucrative job offers outside politics.
But the truth is that Renzi has set up an office in his
basement where he meets advisers and spends hours on the phone
with party allies plotting his path back to power, two sources
close to the 41-year-old said.
Renzi staked his government on the plan designed to make
Italy more governable but which almost 20 million voters
rejected in the referendum. The loss left him, and his
Democratic Party (PD), "navigating without a compass", one PD
The former boy scout's rise from the political ashes is far
from certain. But he appears determined to capitalise on his
continued appeal within the PD and looks keen to shape Italy's
future political landscape.
Renzi, who remains leader of the party, fears his absence
could open the door to extremists on the right and left.
Any comeback would probably involve championing progressive
reforms while challenging European budget austerity and migrant
policy, as he did during his first - and so far only - term that
lasted less than three years.
Despite the disagreements with Brussels, he wants to keep
Italy at the heart of the European project, unlike the
increasingly popular anti-euro 5-Star Movement which would be
one of the main obstacles to a return to office.
Even if he does succeed, it may mean teaming up with former
premier Silvio Berlusconi - as the PD had to do in 2013 - to
keep the 5-Star out of power.
No clear winner would emerge if an election were held now,
according to opinion polls, with the PD, the centre-right and
anti-establishment 5-Star each drawing a third of voters.
First, Renzi will have to reassert his hold on the fractious
PD. But if that fails, he is ready to consider forming a new
party, provided a new electoral law makes that advantageous, two
separate PD sources told Reuters.
Unlike in Britain, where David Cameron left politics soon
after losing the Brexit referendum, Italy has a history of prime
ministers returning to power after defeat. Berlusconi had four
terms while Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti served five
times as premier from the 1970s to the 1990s.
On Sunday, Renzi stood before more than 1,000 PD members and
pledged "an extraordinary listening campaign" to electors in
January as the party enters a "Zen" phase of reflection before
Silence and meditation have never been traits associated
with the fast-talker, who was Italy's youngest prime minister
when he seized power in a party coup in 2014. Three months
later, the PD won almost 41 percent of the vote in European
elections, a level of consensus last reached by the
then-dominant but now defunct Christian Democrat party in 1958.
Renzi's return to Tuscany and a rumoured new book belie a
tactical threat to PD rivals who want him to step down as party
secretary and make way for new blood, PD sources said, because
his retreat would leave the party severely hobbled.
The PD would win only about 10 percent of the vote if Renzi
left the party and ran solo, two separate polls showed. Even
after the referendum, his leadership was backed by between half
and two-thirds of PD voters, two different surveys showed.
"I'm convinced that - as polls say - Renzi is the leader
recognised by the PD base by a huge margin compared with other
candidates," Anna Ascani, a PD lawmaker close to Renzi, told
Roberto Speranza, a member of the minority left-wing faction
of the bloc, has already said he would run for the party
leadership, and two others have expressed a similar aim, but
none of them has nearly the same following as Renzi.
"It's in Renzi's interest to accelerate the process and go
to a vote as soon as possible to head off any internal rivals,"
said Federico Benini, the head of polling agency Winpoll.
It is still unclear whether there will be early national
elections in the first half of 2017, or whether the legislature
will head to the end of its term in 2018. Renzi has said he
favours a snap vote.
But parliament is unlikely to adopt new voting rules until
after a Constitutional Court ruling on the lower house electoral
law, which is expected at the end of January. The court will
also rule on whether to allow another referendum - this time on
Renzi's labour reform - in January.
Meanwhile, Renzi is in his basement putting into practice
the boy scout motto he knows well - "Be prepared". In 2009 his
election as Florence's mayor proved to be a springboard to the
prime ministership. Before getting there, however, he lost a
2012 primary election to party rival Pier Luigi Bersani.
"A leader is someone who admits a loss and then says, 'Let's
see how we can restart again,'" Renzi said on Sunday as most of
the party members in the auditorium cheered him on.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene in Florence and
Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome; editing by David Stamp)