Pier Luigi Bersani, the head of Italy's main centre-left Democratic Party, has won a run-off primary to become candidate for prime minister in national elections slated to be held early next year.
Sunday's primary had been closely watched since the Democratic Party has a significant lead in the polls over former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom party, which has been in chaos following the media mogul's downfall and series of corruption scandals.
Bersani has said repeatedly that in power he would stick to tough budget commitments made by technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, but seek to soften the impact on workers and the poor and put more emphasis on economic growth.
"They won and we did not," Bersani's rival for the centre-left candidacy, fellow Democratic Party member Matteo Renzi, said at a rally in his native Florence, where he conceded defeat. "Congratulations and we wish you well."
With some 80 percent of the 9,200 polling places reporting, Bersani had 60.8 percent of votes to 39.1 percent for Renzi. The results were in line with two exit polls.
Markets have expressed some wariness over an alliance between Bersani, who is a former communist, and a party called Left, Ecology and Freedom.
Bersani, 61, will now stand in national elections, likely in March, against a still-to-be-chosen centre-right candidate to take over from Monti.
"If the polls remain the same, Bersani looks set to mount a convincing run for the premiership in the general elections set for next spring," said Al Jazeera's Claudio Lavanga.
The contrast was strong between the bald, slow-speaking professorial Bersani and Renzi, who bounced around platforms at rallies in open shirts and jeans. "Italians opted for experience over youth in Sunday's vote," said Lavanga.
Renzi had painted himself as a Kennedy-esque reformer, saying Italy's largest centre-left party needed a big shakeup.
He had accused the older generation of the Democratic Party of failing to present a credible alternative, allowing Berlusconi's centre-right to govern for so long.
The cigar-chomping Bersani has working-class roots and grew up in the traditionally leftist Emilia Romagna region. He has tried to court Catholic voters, naming late pope John XXIII as one of his all-time heroes.
Monti, a favourite of the business community, has said he will not be a candidate next year but might come back if the election does not provide a clear winner.
Another possible future role for him is as president of the republic and guarantor that austerity reforms agreed with Italy's European partners continue.
Italy's gross public debt is equivalent to 126 percent of national output, according to the IMF.
Berlusconi's scandal-plagued right, forced from government by the financial crisis a year ago, is in disarray. The former prime minister said on Monday he would wait to see who wins the centre-left primary before deciding whether to run himself. He has repeatedly changed his mind in the last few weeks on whether to do so.