Italy's Renzi suffers first high-profile defection from party

ROME, May 6 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suffered a high-profile defection from his ruling Democratic Party (PD) on Wednesday in a first concrete sign that growing internal dissent could lead to a breakaway group leaving the party.

Giuseppe Civati, a former close Renzi ally, announced he was leaving the PD in disagreement with the prime minister who he said had moved the party to the right and was intolerant of internal debate.

Civati, a lower house deputy, has been one of the most prominent of a growing group of PD dissidents who have distanced themselves from Renzi's recent moves to reform the labour market, the electoral system and the education system.

Around 50 PD rebels refused to back a reform of the electoral law which was approved by parliament this week.

"For now I am leaving on my own, for the future we will see what happens," said Civati when asked by reporters if he expected more PD rebels to follow him.

While other PD dissidents said Civati's departure was a sign of major internal problems, Renzi's aides showed little concern. "We're sorry but we respect his choices," said Lorenzo Guerini, the PD's deputy leader.

Civati, 39, is one year younger than Renzi and in 2010 the two launched a joint campaign to try to oust the former PD leadership and promote generational change in the party.

However, policy differences quickly began to emerge and in 2013 Renzi defeated Civati in a primary ballot to win the PD leadership.

According to recent opinion polls Renzi's PD remains easily Italy's most popular party, with about 36 percent of the vote, although its support has ebbed gradually from above 40 percent a year ago. (Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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