Italians voted yesterday overwhelmingly to elect Matteo Renzi as the new head of the ruling Democratic Party, returning him to frontline politics as the party faces a growing challenge from populist politicians.
"It is a clear, ample victory that went beyond our expectations," said agriculture minister Maurizio Martina, who has been campaigning for Mr Renzi. "This is the opening of a new phase."
Voters queued at tents, bars and local party headquarters across the country to choose between Andrea Orlando, the justice minister, Michele Emiliano, governor of the southern Puglia region, and Mr Renzi, the former prime minister.
Turnout was estimated at between 1.9 to 2 million voters, an "extraordinary" result, said Mr Renzi, 42, who resigned in December after Italians overwhelmingly rejected a national referendum to reform Italy’s constitution.
In remarks on the terrace of the party headquarters, Mr Renzi said the primary victory - estimated to be well over 60 percent - marked the "turning of a new page" for the party, and possibly the future of Europe.
"Yes, we want to change Europe, we say it with humility and responsibility. We are not against Europe, we want a Europe that is able to represent its citizens, otherwise the alternative is populism."
Infighting in the wake of the referendum failure fractured the party, which recently fell behind the populist 5-Star Movement in the national polls. But Renzi Sunday pledged to return unity to the centre-left.
"We will now move forward together," he said.
Buoyed by the first-round victory of centre-left reformist Emmanuel Macron in France, Mr Renzi campaigned with the slogan In Cammino (on the way), drawing comparisons to Mr Macron’s En Marche.
A general election is scheduled for early 2018, but could come earlier if parliament were to agree on electoral reforms.
Mr Renzi has not ruled out forming an alliance with centre-right leader and former premier Silvio Berlusconi if the party faces a tough race against the 5-Star Movement.
Mr Renzi’s return comes just as Italy prepares to welcome dozens of foreign delegations to the G7 meeting in Sicily's Taormina.
He is also reportedly planning to meet former US president Barack Obama, who is due to arrive in Italy on May 8 to attend a global food summit.
Mr Obama welcomed Mr Renzi at the White House last year, and Mr Renzi and his wife are now hoping to host the Obamas in Tuscany, according to Italian media reports.