By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - National elections are looming and Italy's left seems bent on engineering its own defeat as Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi continues to come under fire from potential allies.
The PD emerged badly bruised in a Sicilian regional vote last week, coming in a distant third to a center-right coalition and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement in a contest that many saw as a dry run for a national election due by May.
Though a weekend poll showed the PD has dropped six percentage points in six months, it remains locked in a three-way race with 5-Star and a center-right coalition that includes four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy!).
The economy is growing at its fastest pace in seven years and migrant arrivals have fallen dramatically, two factors the ruling PD hopes will help it win over moderate and progressive voters who would never choose Berlusconi and are wary of the untested 5-Star.
But a group of left-wing lawmakers who split from the PD earlier this year accuse Renzi of taking the party too far to the right and turning it into his personal fiefdom; and so far they are refusing to make peace.
Former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, who orchestrated the dramatic schism, never passes up a chance to attack Renzi. Pietro Grasso, the Senate president and a former anti-mafia magistrate who abruptly left the PD last month, quipped that "the PD doesn't exist any more".
The PD and its potential allies could still be key players after the vote if they can only agree to round on their rivals instead of Renzi in the few months left before the election.
The fast-talking 42-year-old Florentine has not made it easy on himself. Just last month he clashed with the most popular member of his own party - Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
Just days before Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco's mandate was to expire, Renzi blindsided Gentiloni with a parliamentary motion inviting the premier not to give the central banker another six-year term.
The PD accused Visco of doing too little to head off banking crises that cost taxpayers up to 23 billion euros ($26.8 billion) this year in salvage operations on sinking lenders.
To defuse a dispute with President Sergio Mattarella, who formally names Bank of Italy chiefs and who backed Visco, Gentiloni ignored Renzi's appeal.
"The Visco affair has opened a fault line" in the party, said a PD lawmaker from Sicily who asked not to be named. "Two power systems are squaring off, one outside the current Italian establishment and one inside. Renzi is on the outside."
Using a soccer analogy, a government source and PD member told Reuters the Visco affair revealed Renzi to be increasingly unpredictable.
Three years ago Renzi was the Diego Maradona of Italian politics, the source said, but now he's more like Antonio Cassano, a tantrum-prone Italian soccer star whose volcanic temper caused problems on the field.
"Like Maradona, he was a little hard to handle, but it was OK because the team won," the source said. "But now he's more like Cassano, whose volatile personality offset his talent and hurt his team."
Under the new electoral law, Renzi and other party secretaries will personally pick their candidates for next year's vote. Many inside the PD are not speaking publicly, but the rebels who have split with the party are holding nothing back.
"The reunification of the center left requires a change in policy and leadership," D'Alema said last week.
Laura Garavini, a PD lawmaker close to Renzi, told Reuters that tensions within the party persist.
"The idea was that after the split they would disappear, but they haven't," she said.
Another source of tension on the left has been Renzi's agreement with center-right rivals last month to pass a proportional electoral law that favors pre-vote coalitions, angering the PD splinter party that doesn't want to play second fiddle to Renzi.
Senate President Grasso quit the PD hours after the law passed, criticizing Renzi. The PD breakaway party, known as the MDP, is now courting Grasso as their possible leader.
The latest poll had the PD at 24.3 percent, trailing 5-Star that stood at 29.3 percent, while the center-right is pulling 36.5 percent.
"If the PD stops its internal bickering... we can win 40 percent," Renzi said on a TV talk show last week.
That's easier said that done, as the Sicilian lawmaker explains: "In the PD, we're all equally unpleasant to each other. The category of friendship does not exist. Everyone thinks they're smarter than everyone else."