Italy's Renzi ahead of Grillo in EU vote-projections

By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was on course for a triumph in Sunday's European election with early projections giving his center-left Democratic Party (PD) a strong lead over the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of ex-comic Beppe Grillo.

A projection by IPR Marketing for RAI state television put the PD on 41.4 percent ahead of the 5-Star Movement on 22.4 percent with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party on 15.7 percent.

A separate projection by the EMG institute for La7 television put the PD on 39.7 percent, the 5-Star Movement on 22.1 percent and Forza Italia on 15.5 percent.

"This is an important and extraordinary result," Debora Serracchiani, a senior PD official told reporters at the party's headquarters in Rome. "It's a reward for the work of the government and it shows we need to carry on with the work of changing the country."

If the results are confirmed, it would be a huge win for the 39-year-old Renzi, who seized power three months ago by forcing out his lower key predecessor Enrico Letta in a party coup and pledging an ambitious reform program.

A result that significantly increased the PD's vote from the 25.4 percent scored in last year's election would give him political legitimacy to push on with the broad economic and constitutional reforms he has promised.

For Grillo, who won a stunning 25.5 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary election and who said he expected to win the election, the result would be below expectations. But it would nonetheless consolidate his rowdy and unconventional movement as the second force in Italian politics.

However for Berlusconi, who was barred from voting himself because of his conviction for tax fraud, the result would be a serious blow and would underline the sharp decline in his fortunes since last year's election.

With unemployment at record levels and the economy struggling to emerge from two years of recession, the election had been expected to see a strong rise in support for eurosceptical parties.

Next to Grillo, who wants a referendum to decide whether Italy remains in the euro, the RAI projection put the anti-euro Northern League on 6.1 percent with the leftist Tsipras group, which is also deeply critical of many aspects of EU policy, on the threshold of getting into parliament with 4.1 percent.

The New Center Right party which supports Renzi's cross-party coalition was struggling to get over the threshold with 3.9 percent.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie, editing by Mike Peacock)