Paolo Gentiloni, Italy's prime minister © EPA

Defeat for Italy’s ruling Democratic party (PD) in an apparently arcane committee vote in the Senate has exposed tensions in the parliamentary majority and raised concerns about the stability of the centre-left government led by Paolo Gentiloni.

Any prospect of a political crisis in the eurozone’s third-largest economy will unsettle investors and policymakers, who are relying on Mr Gentiloni remaining in place until elections are due in early 2018. 

The possibility that Mr Gentiloni’s position could be in jeopardy was raised this week after the PD’s candidate to lead the constitutional affairs committee in the Senate lost to a rival from the centrist Alleanza Popolare (AP) party, an ally in the governing coalition.

Loss of the committee leadership was seen within the PD — and especially among allies of Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister who is attempting to mount a political comeback— as akin to a fratricidal coup. The committee role will be pivotal because it has to craft a new electoral law for the country.

Matteo Orfini, president of the PD and a close ally of Mr Renzi, said the coalition “should be based on mutual loyalty, not on creating accidents”.

Mr Renzi, who stepped down as prime minister last year after losing an election on constitutional reform, faces primary elections to see if he retains leadership of the PD on April 30. He is expected to win and launch a fresh bid for the premiership after Italy’s next election.

Opponents of Mr Renzi are accusing him of purposely overreacting to the defeat to bring down the government or at least show that he could do so. That would trigger early elections. 

Angelino Alfano, the foreign minister and leader of AP, sought to limit the damage by asking Salvo Torrisi, the candidate who won the Senate committee vote, to step down. But he said: “We were not born yesterday. If someone is trying to create a frenzy within the legislature and the government and go to early elections, they should say it clearly.”

Francesco Galietti, an analyst at Policy Sonar in Rome, said “Renzi is arguably playing a dangerous game, as he is putting the whole country’s position on the line at a hugely sensitive political junction.”

Mr Renzi sought to portray himself as the responsible party in the stand-off. “Yesterday’s episode is serious and unpleasant . . . but we don’t want to use the word government crisis,” he said on Thursday. “The work of the government needs to be defended and encouraged.”

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Gentiloni indirectly sought to lower the political temperature in Rome. “In this delicate moment for our country and the world citizens want institutions to be reassuring. This is what the institutions need to be doing.” 

Friction within the governing coalition may increase further in the coming months as Mr Gentiloni tries to craft a budget to fit EU budget rules. This has already been a source of tension between PD lawmakers close to Mr Renzi and Pier Carlo Padoan, the finance minister.

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