ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 24: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) and Minister of Justice Andrea Orlando attend a debate ahead of a confidence vote on Renzi's coalition government at the Italian Senate Palazzo Madama on February 24, 2014 in Rome, Italy. Renzi, 39, is the youngest prime minister in the country's history. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Andrea Orlando, left, and Matteo Renzi in 2014 © Getty

Andrea Orlando, Italy’s justice minister, is challenging Matteo Renzi for leadership of the ruling Democratic party, signifying the most serious threat so far to the former prime minister’s bid to reclaim power.

“I have decided to become a candidate because I believe the PD needs to change profoundly in order to be truly useful to Italy and the problems of Italians, who are experiencing very difficult times,” Mr Orlando said on his Facebook page.

The move by Mr Orlando comes at a moment of upheaval in the PD, which is struggling to recover from the defeat of its flagship constitutional reforms in a December referendum and the ensuing resignation of Mr Renzi as prime minister.

On Sunday, Mr Renzi resigned as head of the PD to launch a leadership battle that he hopes to use to regain legitimacy within the party and the wider electorate.

The battle for the PD is important because it will set the stage for the next Italian elections, due within a year, when the ruling centre-left party will face the anti-establishment Five Star Movement for control of the government. Five Star is the most prominent populist political force in Italy, and has vowed to call for a referendum on euro membership.

Mr Renzi already has one rival as PD head: Michele Emiliano, the regional governor of Puglia in southern Italy. Mr Emiliano has argued that Mr Renzi, the 42-year-old former mayor of Florence, shifted the party too far to the centre during his nearly three years in government.

But while Mr Emiliano is backed by a vocal minority of dissidents on the left, Mr Orlando’s challenge could be more meaningful. The 48-year-old has more credibility among rank-and-file PD lawmakers, putting him in a better position to woo legislators who backed Mr Renzi’s reformist vision but are disappointed with the results.

Nevertheless most analysts believe the PD leadership race — to be decided in April or May — remains Mr Renzi’s to lose.

“Orlando is a serious figure who comes to the contest with a larger chunk of the party than Emiliano does,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, an analyst at Open Europe in London. “But I do not believe either of them have the support to beat Renzi in the primary, so this could actually help him by showing there will be a genuine debate and not just a coronation,”

Mr Orlando suggested that his campaign would offer a contrast in policies and also in style to Mr Renzi. “I am not resigned to the fact that politics can only be based on arrogance,” he said.

Mr Orlando was elected to parliament in 2006, and was appointed environment minister in 2013 in the government of Enrico Letta, before becoming justice minister under Mr Renzi in 2014.

Marco Tarchi, a professor of political science at the University of Florence, said: “Orlando is trying to be a bridge between the left and sceptical Renzi-ites, but he does not seem to have the sufficient stature.”

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