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by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, June 15 (Xinhua) -- After a whirlwind rise to power, climbing approval levels, and a sweeping victory at the polls, new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is starting to face his first political setbacks. Experts say it will be important to see how he responds.
On Thursday, 13 senators from Renzi's own political party withdrew their support for the prime minister's constitutional reform plans, which include a dramatic downsizing of the Senate.
Earlier in the week, Renzi suffered his first electoral setback as prime minister when an ally of anti-government activist Beppe Grillo became mayor of the port city of Livorno in Renzi's native Tuscany.
It's the first time that city, which is where Italy's communist part was founded 93 years ago, will be led by a figure who doesn't come from a left or center-left party since World War II.
Additionally, Italian economist and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi took a swipe at part of Renzi's reform agenda in late May when he said Renzi could not slash the pay of Bank of Italy officials as much as he planned because doing so could, according to Draghi, "compromise the independence" of the bank.
"Member states may not seek to influence the members of the national central banks' decision-making bodies by amending national legislation affecting their remuneration," Draghi said in a May 26 European Central Bank Governing Council opinion paper.
"That developments do not always break Renzi's way, and it's not necessarily a problem," Gian Franco Gallo, a political affairs analyst with ABS Securities, told Xinhua. "But it will be interesting to see how Renzi reacts."
Gallo continued: "When he came to power, critics said he would be hindered because as a chief executive [his previous job was as mayor of Florence] he didn't have to broker compromises." he said now Renzi will have to prove he has those skills.
The 39-year-old Renzi became prime minister in February after a dramatic back room power struggle with predecessor Enrico Letta.
After a slow start, his reform agenda -- especially a tax break that put extra cash in the pockets of low- and middle- income workers -- gained traction, leading to a historic victory in European Parliament elections in late May that gave Renzi the electoral mandate he lacked before. Momentum was on the prime minister's side.
Of the various setbacks since then, the defection of 13 party allies is probably the most serious -- both because the constitutional reform issue has been a priority for Renzi and because the move could be seen as a kind of warning shot to show Renzi he cannot count on the blind support of his fellow party members.
His plan to downsize and reduce the power of Italy's Senate was controversial from the start, and it is not a surprise that it has not received wide support from the very senators who would lose their jobs if it went through.
Renzi's efforts to get the reform out of the Senate's Constitutional Affairs Committee, where it had been stalled, sparked the move from the 13 senators who said they were "suspending themselves" from their party.
They did not officially quit, and experts said it was likely they could be wooed back to the fold. But the developments do not bode well for Renzi.
"You get the idea that Renzi thinks lawmakers in his own party should just take their orders from him," Carolina Filiberto, a constitutional law expert with the University of Lombardy in Milan, told Xinhua. "What we have seen here is that he will have to confer with them, seek their counsel, and probably make some compromises in order to make the changes he wants."
Xinhua is China's state-run news agency.
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