UPDATE 4-Bersani to face Renzi in runoff vote for Italy left leader

* Democratic Party leader Bersani leads in first round

* Florence mayor Renzi main challenger

* Centre-left leading opinion polls for March parliamentary

vote

(Releads with updated results, adds fresh quotes, details)

ROME, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Pier Luigi Bersani, head of Italy's

Democratic Party, will face his main rival Matteo Renzi in a

runoff next week to pick the centre-left candidate to fight to

succeed Mario Monti as prime minister following the first round

of a primary vote on Sunday.

With almost half the results counted, Bersani led with about

44 percent, ahead of Renzi, the youthful mayor of Florence, who

was campaigning as a moderniser, at around 36 percent, according

to party officials.

Both candidates have pledged to maintain the budget

discipline pursued by Monti's technocrat government and to

respect Italy's commitments to its European partners but say

they will encourage growth and will not blindly pursue austerity

policies.

"Pier Luigi Bersani has won the first round," Renzi, whose

result was better than polls had projected, told supporters late

on Sunday. He promised a "loyal" contest before the runoff vote

on Dec. 2.

"If we don't succeed, we'll lend a hand and together we will

try to win and finally close the ugly chapter left by the

centre-right," he said.

Nichi Vendola, the openly gay head of the left-wing Left,

Ecology, Freedom party was in third place with 15 percent, while

the remaining two candidates, Bruno Tabacci and Laura Puppato,

trailed far behind.

The outcome of the second round will remove one major

element of uncertainty dogging Italian politics ahead of spring

elections to choose a successor to Monti's government, which

took over after Silvio Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister

in November, 2011.

Monti has said he will not run in the next election,

expected in March, because it would destabilize the right-left

coalition that now supports him, though he has left open the

possibility of staying on if there is no outright winner.

The centre-left alliance is well ahead in opinion polls for

the election, although uncertainty over what electoral system

will be used in the ballot means 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 deep recession.

While the slick and dynamic Renzi, 37, is much more popular

across the general population, the 61 year-old Bersani's core

support among traditional PD party voters proved decisive.

"It's been a magnificent day. I'm extremely happy," Bersani

said as his lead in the vote became clear.

The unified front contrasts with deep divisions in the

centre-right over whether to stick with Monti's unpopular

economic policies. Support for Berlusconi's People of Freedom

party (PDL) has crumbled to less than half of what 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 when he said on Saturday he was again thinking about

standing, throwing plans to hold a centre-right primary into

doubt.

LEGITIMACY

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.

Democratic Party (PD) officials said the strong turnout at

the poll, which was not restricted to party members, ensured the

next centre-left leader would be chosen in a fair and democratic

way.

"With this level of participation and with very clear rules,

there is full and complete legitimacy," said PD deputy leader

Enrico Letta, a Bersani supporter. "The candidate for premier

who emerges from this election will be extremely strong."

While the PD has supported Monti's government in parliament,

neither Bersani nor Renzi think the former European Commissioner

should return as prime minister after the vote.

Business leaders have expressed strong support for a second

term for Monti, who has implemented a tough programme of

spending cuts, tax hikes and labour reform to cut the massive

public debt and restore economic competitiveness.

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.

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 and Paul Simao)

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