* Democratic Party leader Bersani leading after first round
* Florence mayor Renzi main challenger
* Centre-left leading opinion polls for March parliamentary
(Adds first results)
ROME, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Pier Luigi Bersani, head of Italy's
Democratic Party, led his main rival Matteo Renzi in a primary
to pick the centre-left candidate in next year's election, early
counting indicated on Sunday, setting the stage for a final
runoff vote next week.
With almost a third of the vote counted, Bersani had about
44.6 percent, ahead of Renzi, the 37 year-old mayor of Florence,
who was campaigning as a moderniser, on 36.5 percent, according
to party officials.
Nichi Vendola, the openly gay head of the left-wing Left,
Ecology, Freedom party was in third place with 14.6 percent,
while the remaining two candidates, Bruno Tabacci and Laura
Puppato trailed far behind.
Assuming the result is confirmed, Bersani and Renzi will
compete in a runoff round on Dec. 2.
The outcome of the second round will eliminate a major
element of uncertainty dogging Italian politics ahead of spring
elections to choose a successor to Prime Minister Mario Monti's
The centre-left alliance is well ahead in opinion polls for
the parliamentary election, although uncertainty over what
electoral system will be used in the ballot means that it is
unclear whether it will be able to form a government without
seeking allies from centrist parties.
Even so, the winner of the primary will be in pole position
to take over Monti's efforts to control strained public finances
and tackle a year-long recession.
Support for former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's deeply
divided centre-right People of Freedom party (PDL) has crumbled
to less than half than it recorded in the last election in 2008.
Berlusconi, who has changed his mind several times over
whether or not to run in the election, added to the chaos facing
the PDL, saying on Saturday he was again thinking about standing
and throwing plans to hold a centre-right primary into doubt.
About 4 million party and non-party voters took part in the
centre-left vote, with queues forming at several outdoor polling
booths in cities across Italy.
"It's time for a return to serious politics, and as a
consequence we can start to resolve the economy," said
57-year-old Vincenzo Donna Maria, after he cast his vote at a
station in central Rome.
Both Bersani and Renzi reject the idea, encouraged by
international markets, that Monti should return after the vote
to continue his economic policies that have so far included
unpopular spending cuts, tax rises and labour reform.
Monti, who has said repeatedly he would be ready to serve a
second term if needed, kept up a diplomatic silence about his
future on Sunday, saying only that he would consider what
contribution he could best make.
Protests on Saturday by tens of thousands of students and
workers from across the political spectrum highlighted the
levels of discontent among Italians grappling with the slump and
rising unemployment in the euro zone's third biggest economy.
While the slick and dynamic Renzi, 37, is much more popular
across the general population than career politician Bersani,
61, he has less support among traditional PD party supporters.
Further complicating the national political picture is the
dramatic rise of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which
is now second in opinion polls, and that around half of Italians
say they are either undecided or will abstain.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene in Florence and James
Mackenzie, Editing by Myra MacDonald)