ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government has seen a marked drop in its approval rating as economic difficulties have grown but he remains by far the country's most popular leader, a poll on Sunday showed.
According to the survey by polling institute Demos for the left-leaning La Repubblica daily, if an election were held immediately, Renzi's center-left Democratic Party would win 36.3 percent of the vote in the lower house.
That would be well ahead of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on 19.8 percent and Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia on 16.2 percent, but below the 41 percent the party won in European parliament elections in May.
However the survey, conducted last week, showed approval of the government falling 13 points in November to 43 percent, down from 56 percent in October. It was the survey's lowest reading since Renzi came to power in February as Italy's youngest-ever prime minister.
The 39-year-old former mayor of Florence remains the most popular political leader, with an approval rating of 52 percent, ahead of his nearest rival Matteo Salvini, leader of the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Northern League party on 30 percent.
While no vote is scheduled until 2018, the likely departure of 89-year-old President Giorgio Napolitano by early next year has rekindled speculation that Renzi may call a snap election at the same time to consolidate his strong position.
Last week he reinforced a cooperation pact with Berlusconi to push to reform an electoral law widely blamed for repeated bouts of political instability in Italy. However, a bill must first go through parliament and many details remain unclear.
Economic data last week showed Italy's economy back in recession for the third time since 2008, adding pressure on Renzi to produce concrete results to go with his ambitious reform promises.
At the same time, he has faced stiff opposition from unions and many in his own party to plans to overhaul labor laws and scrap key employment protection rules for full-time workers in large companies.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)