Italians voted Sunday for a new Democratic Party chief in a primary that returned Matteo Renzi to its leadership, just as the splintering party ponders how to counter a growing challenge from anti-euro populist politicians.
The Democrats are currently the main force in Italy's coalition government. Citizens lined up Sunday at makeshift gazebos in piazzas and street corners or local party headquarters around the country to vote.
According to partial results, Renzi had about 72 percent of the vote, Justice Minister Andrea Orlando had 19 percent while Michele Emiliano, the governor of the southern Puglia region, had about 9 percent.
Both of his opponents, as well as Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, called to congratulate him, and Renzi gave a long victory speech at party headquarters.
"Forward together," Renzi said to applause.
Renzi, 42, resigned as prime minister in December after Italians overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional referendum aimed at streamlining the parliamentary system.
Nearly 1.5 million people had voted three hours before the polls closed at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT), organizers said. This was lower than earlier primary contests but not as much as some analysts had predicted, given what many called a lackluster campaign.
Renzi himself had set the bar for success at one million voters, and an internal vote conducted by the PD this month suggested a clear Renzi victory after he scored 66.7 percent, with 25.3 percent for Orlando and eight percent for Emiliano.
"It's a festival of democracy," Renzi told reporters after casting his vote.
"I hope that others will do the same, it doesn't hurt," Renzi added, taking a swipe at the rival Five Star Movement, which is running close to the PD in opinion polls but which decided to hold its primary contest via an online vote.
His two rivals on Sunday are considered farther to the left: Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Michele Emiliano, who heads the southern Puglia region.
Emiliano said the election would be a flop if fewer people voted this time around, while Orlando said that fewer than two million cast ballots would signal a failure.
When he first took over the leadership in December 2013, Renzi won the backing of close on 68 percent of 2.8 million voters.
But in the aftermath of his referendum's defeat and facing a rebellion from the left wing of his center-left party, Renzi stepped down as party leader in February with the aim of regaining legitimacy in a future vote.
The vote was open to all Italians over 16 years old, EU citizens residing in Italy and non-EU foreigners with valid residency permits -- on condition of paying a donation of at least two euros.