ROME (AFP) — Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni appears headed to a landslide victory in a vote to elect the leader of Italy's new centre-left Democratic Party, according to first projections from poll organisers.
Veltroni, 52, polled 74.6 percent of the vote Sunday according to a sampling of 100 ballot papers from each of 1,000 polling stations chosen.
The official result is expected on Monday.
After polling stations closed at 1800 GMT, organisers predicted an "extraordinary" three million strong voter turnout.
The strength of the predicted victory and the high turnout could set Veltroni up as the likely heir apparent to Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
The ballot -- open to any official resident of Italy over the age of 16 who made a one euro donation -- was organised to elect the first leader of the new Democratic Party, born of a merger of the former Democrats of the Left (DS) and the Daisy party of progressive Christian Democrats.
The same projections put Families Minister Rosy Bindi in second place with 14.1 percent and Enrico Letta, undersecretary in the prime minister's office, in third with 11 percent. The other two candidates received 0.1 percent each.
Casting his vote after supervising a wedding ceremony at Rome's townhall, Veltroni said: "It's a fantastic day for Italian democracy. We have in these primaries chosen to create a new party -- a choice absolutely unique and unprecedented in European politics."
Prodi, who heads a shaky 12 party centre-left coalition which has already narrowly survived one vote of confidence, said that left-wing leaders across Europe were "very interested in the Italian experience: how to move forward traditional parties without repudiating their principles."
The Democratic Party is seeking to become Italy's largest political grouping. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia is currently Italy's largest single party.
Voters in Sunday's party poll picked both the DP's leader as well as regional secretaries and 2,400 delegates to national and regional constituent assemblies from among 35,000 candidates.
Veltroni has insisted throughout his campaign that he would not undermine the 68-year-old Prodi's position but bring stability to the executive.
"This evening, we confirm our full support for the Prodi government to guide and transform the country," Veltroni said after the first projections were announced.
Prodi echoed those sentiments: "We started together and we have grown together."
But Italian commentators doubted whether that cordial spirit would last.
Il Sole-24 Ore financial newspaper wrote: "It is hard to see how Veltroni's ambition -- to become head of the government -- can sit comfortably alongside the demands of Prodi -- the actual head of the government."
Rome's daily Il Messaggero said on Sunday that many politicians "saw the 'new-born party' as the natural hitman for a 'dying government', the victim of Prodi's unpopular choices which have seen it crash in the polls."
Veltroni is a former communist-turned-social democrat. He has long dreamed of a large US-style party that would at last give Italy's centre-left a stable majority. Reform-minded elements in the old Christian Democrat party take a similar view.
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