ROME, Oct 15 (Reuters) Rome's Mayor Walter Veltroni looks to be the overwhelming victor in a contest to lead Italy's new Democratic Party, according to partial results today from the votes of more than three million centre-left supporters.
With over half the ballots counted, 52-year-old Veltroni had 76 per cent of votes for the post of party secretary versus about 14 per cent for his closest rival, cabinet member Rosy Bindi.
Such a huge margin and voter turnout -- a million more than even the highest forecasts -- anoints Veltroni as Prime Minister Romano Prodi's heir to lead the centre left in the next general election. Tellingly, the vote was called a ''primary'' in Italy.
Enrico Letta, a cabinet undersecretary running in third place, said up to 2.4 million people ''chose Veltroni as leader.
In a modern system, leadership of the main centre-left force should go hand-in-hand with being the centre-left candidate for premier.'' Prodi still has 3-1/2 years to serve but Italian prime ministers rarely last the full term and Prodi's tiny majority in the Senate means he governs on a knife edge. With the centre left 10 points behind in opinion polls, early elections would be risky.
While some commentators said Veltroni's resounding win could be a problem for Prodi -- a Corriere della Sera editorial said it ''risks making people say his leadership is over'' -- the premier said his government ''came out stronger'' from the vote.
Veltroni, a former communist and party paper editor who as mayor has given Rome its own film festival and has taken a tough line on street crime, presented it as a joint victory.
''For myself and Romano this is a dream come true and our relationship is bomb-proof,'' he said.
The PD, whose founding convention will be on October 27, merges the former communist Democrats of the Left (DS), the coalition's biggest party, and the more centrist ''Daisy'' party.
Prodi and Veltroni hope such consolidation will help rid Italian politics of its chronic instability, complicated by an electoral system biased towards smaller parties. They want to see electoral reform before Italy goes to the polls again.
''We need an election law that can give the government of our country some stability. Governments that last on average a year are a drama for Italy,'' said Prodi, an ex-European Commission chief who beat conservative Silvio Berlusconi in 2006 elections.
The idea of a united party of the centre left was dreamt up 12 years ago by Prodi, who united the two parties in the ''Olive Tree'' alliance for 2006 election and will preside the new PD.
Some leaders of the centre-right opposition, which mirrors the divisions on the left, believe they will have to respond to the birth of the PD by seeking their own unification.
REUTERS SKB HS1727