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The two faces of Italian politics

Sunday, 10 February 2013 - 6:43pm IST | Place: Rome | Agency: Daily Telegraph
A sober, cigar-smoking former Communist is giving billionaire Berlusconi a run for his money.

As the man most likely to be elected Italy's next prime minister, Pier Luigi Bersani is an irresistible target for the annual satirical parade in the city of Viareggio.

A giant figure of the cigar-smoking, former Communist will be centre-stage today (Sunday) when a convoy of floats passes through the Tuscan resort renowned for its bitingly satirical papier-mache puppets.

But the figure, with a bulbous head and scowling face, is about the only larger-than-life thing about the head of the centre-Left Democratic Party, whose decent but staid image is a far cry from the over-the-top personality of his main rival, Silvio Berlusconi.

Where Berlusconi can electrify a crowd like a Saturday night comedian, his nemesis is plodding and formulaic, spouting the sort of vague, airy rhetoric about freedom, values and equality that is so beloved of the Italian Left.

Bersani, who leads the polls with the election in two weeks, has pledged to continue with the broad thrust of outgoing prime minister Mario Monti's fiscal programme, but wants to introduce more pro-growth measures to try to blunt Berlusconi's persistent claims that austerity has halted economic recovery.

A committed Catholic and former teacher, Bersani says that one of his first acts in government would be to introduce a law addressing conflicts of interest in politics. His opponent has always had extensive business interests.

The leader of the Left wants to cut defence spending but is a staunch Europhile, calling for the creation of a United States of Europe and claiming that further European Union integration would help to tackle the debt crisis.

At a rally for the party faithful attended by The Sunday Telegraph last week, his address was preceded by rousing pop music, from Coldplay's Viva La Vida to John Lennon's Imagine, and a clip of Barack Obama at a Democratic convention in the United States.

But Bersani's performance in an elegant, fin-de-siecle former theatre in central Rome was a pale imitation of the American president, as he stood on a podium backed by a giant poster bearing worthy but woolly words such as fraternity, morality, work, rights and Europe.

Dressed in a dark suit and blue patterned tie, the 61-year-old politician looked weary as he listed what he said were the many promises broken by Berlusconi, who has been in office three times in the past two decades.

He accused the 76-year-old billionaire of "deceiving Italians, above all young people" with promises that would be valid only until the day of the election, and would then be "thrown in the bin".

With just two weeks to go before voting in the February 24-25 election, the art of the memorable sound bite still eludes Bersani, who is widely regarded as a hard-working but uninspiring party hack.

He has struggled to match even Monti, the sober, technocrat prime minister who has been in power for the past 15 months. Monti recently described Berlusconi as "a snake charmer" and likened him to the Pied Piper of Hamelin who will lead Italians to their doom.

About the only things Bersani has in common with Berlusconi are that they are both from northern Italy, both take their holidays in Sardinia, and both are balding - although Berlusconi has remedied that with a series of transplants that have given him more hair than when he started out in politics 20 years ago.

While his ill-judged jokes, corruption cases and sexual entanglements have made Berlusconi notorious around the world, his opponent is little known outside Italy.

The son of a mechanic and petrol station attendant, Bersani was born in 1951 in the mountain village of Bettola in the "red", that is to say Left-leaning, Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy.

Coming from a staunchly Catholic family, he became an altar boy. He went on to study philosophy at Bologna University - one of Italy's most acclaimed and the oldest in Europe - and wrote his dissertation on the life of Pope Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great for his prolific theological writings.

After his first career in teaching, Bersani joined the powerful Italian Communist Party and then, when it was disbanded after the end of the Cold War, its successor, the Democratic Party.

In 1993, he was elected governor of Emilia-Romagna, and three years later appointed industry minister in the government of Romano Prodi, a centre-Left prime minister.

As minister for transport and economic development between 2006 and 2008, he introduced a batch of liberalising economic measures and privatisations which his supporters say augur well as he pledges to continue the reforms of Monti. He tackled monopolies and opened up previously closed sectors of the economy, from pharmacies to newspaper kiosks.

His wife, Daniela Ferrari, is a pharmacist from his home town, and they have two daughters, but he keeps his family out of the media glare.

Aside from his love of cigars, one of the few indulgences he allows himself is rock music - he is a fan of the Rolling Stones and AC/DC.

There is not the slightest whiff of scandal about his private life - unlike that of Berlusconi, which in the past few years has been enlivened by a divorce, dalliances with scantily clad starlets, "bunga bunga" parties and a criminal trial in which he is accused of paying for sex with an alleged under-age prostitute and nightclub dancer.

Bersani is ahead in the polls, with the last permitted polling of the campaign, published on Friday, showing the Democratic Party attracting 34 per cent of the vote compared to 29 per cent for Berlusconi's party and his allies in the Northern League.

But the media tycoon has dramatically narrowed what was once a wide gap, bringing it down from double digits to just 5.5 per cent. He claims his own party's polling shows that the gulf is even smaller, at just 1.7 per cent.

He has managed to do so with a media blitz, appearing tirelessly on evening talk shows and current affairs programmes, and with an audacious promise to scrap a detested property tax and to refund - in cash - all the Italians who have paid it.

The idea has been widely criticised, with economists estimating that it would cost the country up to euros 8?billion (pounds 6.76?billion) - money it can ill afford. But it has struck a chord with Italians - a poll last week found that nearly 40 per cent of voters viewed the proposal positively, although only one in four believed Berlusconi would have the means to honour his pledge.

The former premier followed up the tax refund pledge with an equally unlikely promise - that if elected he would create 4?million jobs.

Critics pointed out that he had presided over years of stagnant economic growth and that a previous election pledge to create a million jobs had come to nothing. But the man widely known as Il Cavaliere was undeterred; he claims that he has more tricks up his sleeve, or "shock proposals" as he described them, to be announced in the coming days.

If elected, as seems likely, Bersani faces enormous challenges, not least the task of reining in Italy's euros 1.9?trillion (pounds 1.6?trillion) public debt - the highest in the eurozone after Greece.

Unless he can continue the spending cuts and austerity agenda implemented by Monti's band of technocrats, Italy risks lurching back into the debt worries that precipitated Berlusconi's demise in November 2011 and a deepening of the eurozone crisis.

In a renunciation of his Communist roots, Bersani has pledged to follow the path set out by Monti, but there are question marks over his ability to do so. Like any Leftist leader, he runs the risk of being held hostage by the unions, particularly the CGIL, Italy's largest, from which he draws much of his support.

"I'm worried that the CGIL has played such an important role in the success of Bersani, first in the primaries and now in the election campaign. I'm not sure if he will have the strength to resist the unions," said a senior Italian banker, who asked not to be named.

If elected, Bersani will be expected to continue the technocrat government's efforts to reform the labour market and increase competitiveness.

"But these things are very difficult - the unions are very strong in public administration, for instance - and you need a strong government with a strong majority," said the banker. "Without fundamental reforms, growth will be very weak. That's the biggest challenge for Bersani and for Italy. The new government will need to tackle all this from day one."

While the Democratic Party is expected to win a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, it is unlikely to be able to do the same in the Senate, the upper house. That would enable Berlusconi and his allies to act as spoilers, blocking legislation they do not like and causing gridlock.

For Bersani and the Left, it is a nightmare scenario that could quickly precipitate the collapse of the new government.

"It would be catastrophic," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a politics professor from LUISS-Guido Carli University in Rome. "We would probably have to have new elections within two months."

To try to build a more solid majority, Bersani has said he is open to the idea of an alliance with Monti, who is standing in the elections and leads a centrist bloc. But to forge this he would probably have to ditch his close allies in the Left-wing SEL party, run by Nichi Vendola, the openly gay governor of Puglia.

Vendola has repeatedly said he could not stomach being in a cabinet alongside Monti, a stance which would compel Bersani to engage in what one Italian newspaper called "a difficult triangulation".

With two weeks to go before the elections, and facing an irrepressible opponent who can never be underestimated, there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead and Bersani's victory is by no means assured.

As one veteran observer of the travails of Italian politics observed last week: "If there's one bunch of people who can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it's the Italian Left."

 


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