By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's center-left leader Matteo Renzi is no longer the politician he once was, the chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said on Tuesday, indicating their once strong ties had withered.
Renzi resigned as prime minister in 2016 after losing a referendum on electoral reform. Although he remained in charge of the ruling Democratic Party (PD), he has struggled to regain the political initiative and is trailing in the opinion polls ahead of a March 4 national election.
"I always liked him as a person. I don't understand what has happened to him," Fiat Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne told Italian reporters at the Detroit auto show. "The Renzi that I used to support hasn't been seen for a while," he added.
There was no immediate response from Renzi. As head of one of Italy's iconic companies, Marchionne's comment will carry far in the country.
Renzi raised eyebrows when he struck up a close rapport with Marchionne during his three years in government, defying the leftist tradition of standing arm-in-arm with the unions rather than big bosses.
An unapologetic Renzi explained the shift by saying his priority was to help job creators and accused unions of looking after the interests of pensioners rather than workers.
Hardliners quit the PD last year, complaining that the party had shifted too far to the right. They have created a breakaway group called Free and Equal which has hurt Renzi in the polls.
After winning 40 percent in European parliamentary elections in 2014, the PD is now predicted to win only around 23 percent backing in March against some 37 percent for the center-right bloc and 27 for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. [nL8N1OS2Q2]
"Renzi has squandered political capital and has failed basically," said Giovanni Orsina, professor of modern history at Rome's Luiss University, predicting further schisms within the PD if it loses more ground in the forthcoming election.
While Renzi's own approval rating has dropped in line with that of his party, other PD heavyweights still enjoy strong support -- notably Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who emerged as Italy's most respected politician in a weekend poll.
The Ixe survey said Gentiloni had a 35-percent approval rating, against 27 percent for the next most popular leader, the head of 5-Star, Luigi Di Maio.
Renzi hinted on Sunday that he might not thrust himself forward once more as prime minister should the PD pull off a shock win in March, raising speculation that he might endorse instead the mild-mannered Gentiloni in an effort to win votes.
French President Emmanuel Macron and European economic and financial affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici have both warmly praised Gentiloni in recent days, making clear that he is their preferred candidate to regain power.
"It is up to Italians to decide how to vote, but let me say that Europe has been very lucky to have Gentiloni and I hope we can continue the work that we have started," Macron told a news conference in Rome last week. [nL8N1P65AU]
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak in Milan Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)