Italy's Renzi hit by new defection as party strife increases

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gestures during the news conference at the Expo 2015 global fair in Milan, northern Italy, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suffered a high-profile defection from his ruling Democratic Party (PD) on Wednesday in the latest sign that growing internal dissent could lead to a breakaway group leaving the party.

Stefano Fassina, a lower house deputy and former deputy economy minister, has argued for months that Renzi is taking the traditionally center-left party too far to the right. He told reporters he was quitting with immediate effect.

Fassina's departure is a fresh setback for Renzi, who has seen party bickering, corruption scandals and an immigration crisis steadily sap his popularity.

The PD remains Italy's largest party but has lost considerable voter support over the last year. It performed below expectations in recent regional and mayoral elections and the premier's personal approval ratings have plummeted.

In recent weeks Giuseppe Civati, a deputy and former close Renzi ally, and Sergio Cofferati, a member of the European Parliament and former chief of Italy's largest trade union, have also left.

Fassina said he would be meeting with Civati, Cofferati and other former PD dissidents to try to create a movement with "an alternative left-wing agenda".

Fassina, 49, is one of the most prominent members of a group of up to 50 PD rebels who refused to back Renzi's reform of the electoral law which was approved last month.

He has also criticized a labor reform that eases firing restrictions and, most recently, an education reform bill including the installation of school managers responsible for hiring and promotions, which is fiercely opposed by teachers unions.

Renzi said on Tuesday he may call a vote of confidence on the education bill in the upper house Senate this week in order to truncate discussion of about 3,000 amendments tabled by opposition parties in parliament.

(Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Andrew Heavens)