The primary vote by rank-and-file Democrats comes a year after the party lost its five-year hold on the Italian government amid leadership squabbles.
Whoever is chosen as Democratic Party secretary needs to woo back voters who defected to the populist 5-Star Movement, now Parliament’s largest party.
While governing for the first time, the movement’s own leadership has seen internal divisions over policy. Opinion polls indicate the 5-Stars have been eclipsed in popularity by their ruling coalition partner, the right-wing League.
Vying to lead the Democrats were Nicola Zingaretti, Lazio regional governor; Maurizio Martino, a former agriculture minister; and Roberto Giachetti, a prominent Rome Democrat.
Democrats hope to capitalize on the populist government’s failure to revive the economy and hard line on limiting the number of migrants who enter Italy.
On the eve of the party primary, tens of thousands of people rallied against racism in Milan, Italy’s financial capital. Many Italians fear the anti-migrant rhetoric of League leader Matteo Salvini, who serves as interior minister in the coalition government, and other public officials, is fueling intolerance and hatred.
The winner of the Democratic Party primary needs to garner at least one vote more than 50 percent of all ballots cast. If no candidate secures a majority, the new leader will be chosen later by a 1,000-delegate party assembly.