Matteo Renzi.jpg

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came under sharp criticism Monday, after he appeared to backtrack on statements saying he would resign if an upcoming constitutional referendum went against him, and promised only to hold general elections in 2018.

The referendum, expected to be held in November, is likely to make or break Renzi's career.

If approved, it would be the most far-reaching institutional makeover for the country since it became a republic 60 years ago.

If rejected, Renzi vowed last year that he would resign.

But on Sunday he said he was wrong to "personalize" the referendum, suggesting he would not step down if Italians rejected it.

"I made a mistake in saying that it is a referendum about Renzi," he said. Whatever its outcome, the next parliamentary elections will be held in 2018 as planned, he continued.

Renato Brunetta, of the centre-right Forza Italia opposition party, accused Renzi of lying to parliament.

The premier, who has been in office since February 2014, is facing a mid-term slump in popularity, exemplified by stinging local election defeats for his Democratic Party (PD) in June.

Combined with a new electoral law already on statute books, the constitutional overhaul would grant the winner of the next general elections a safe majority in the Chamber of Deputies and should make it easier to push laws through parliament.

Critics, including the populist Five Star Movement and all other opposition parties, as well as dissidents in Renzi's party, retort that the changes undermine democratic checks and balances, grant the executive too many powers, and would produce minimal cost savings.

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