Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi resigned as head of the ruling Democratic Party (PD) on Sunday, opening the way for a leadership fight in which he will take on rivals threatening to split the center-left.
Battling for his political life, Renzi made clear he would seek re-election and warned that the PD's internal feuding was proving a gift to its main opponent in parliament, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
A decade after its foundation, the PD is on the cusp of a schism that risks bringing yet more political instability to the euro zone's third-largest economy, which has been mauled by years of recession, high unemployment and towering debt.
A small, influential group of PD dissidents say that the party has shifted too far from its leftist roots and wants the former premier to stand aside. Renzi's supporters say his vociferous opponents are driven by personal animosity and are looking to bolster their influence in a period of flux.
"The only word worse than 'schism' is the word 'blackmail' ... To ask me to leave is not democratic," Renzi told a party assembly in a smart Rome hotel, confirming he would stand again for the PD leadership he first won in 2013.
A trio of leading critics, including the heads of the Tuscany and Puglia regions, later issued a statement accusing Renzi of refusing compromise and seeking a split.
"It is now clear that Renzi has chosen the path of a schism and bears a heavy burden of responsibility," the three men wrote in a statement that surprised PD directors who had thought that their assembly had managed to heal some of the wounds.