By Angelo Amante and Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Former prime minister Matteo Renzi threatened on Wednesday a showdown in the Italian government over a long-contested judicial reform, but played down speculation he was poised to quit the fractious coalition.
Renzi heads the small Italia Viva party, which has minimal backing in the opinion polls but has the numbers to sink Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's government in parliament, and is using that leverage to try to gain greater visibility.
Known as one of Italy's most ruthless politicians, Renzi tamped down media reports that he was drawing up an array of demands in return for keeping the coalition afloat. But he reiterated a threat to try to oust the justice minister unless he revised an already enacted reform of legal procedures.
"I hope that good sense prevails," he said during a chat show on RAI state television, adding that he would move against the minister, who comes from the 5-Star Movement, if he did not propose a solution to the row by mid-April.
Renzi acknowledged that a forthcoming referendum on reducing the number of lawmakers, which will almost certainly pass and therefore entail a new electoral law, meant Italy would be unlikely to hold fresh parliamentary elections before 2021.
He said the government should use this time to work with opposition parties to draw up sweeping constitutional reforms - something he tried to do when he himself was prime minister but which ultimately led to his downfall in 2016.
A senior member of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which, together with 5-Star forms the bulk of the coalition, has called on Conte to seek new support in parliament and cut his ties with the obstreperous Renzi.
The coalition has a slender majority in the 315-seat upper Senate and would need to sign up at least 10 new senators from other groups to make do without Italia Viva - a tough call.
"If (the coalition) wants our votes then they need to accept our ideas," Renzi said.
Renzi used to lead the PD and is famous for assuring former PD prime minister Enrico Letta of his loyalty via Twitter in 2014 just weeks before ousting him in an internal PD coup.
Renzi quit PD ranks last year after being instrumental in persuading the party to hook up with 5-Star and form a coalition under Conte.
He expected his new party would win strong backing from moderate voters, but its support has settled around a lowly 4%, while Renzi himself remains one of the Italy's most unpopular leaders with an approval rating of just 13%, according to the latest IXE poll published this week by RAI.
These numbers are putting pressure on Renzi to give Italia Viva a stronger profile clearly differentiated from PD.
"Renzi suffers a credibility deficit...and is having a real problem reconnecting with voters," said pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco.
(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte Editing by Mark Heinrich)