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Italian Candidates Avoid Clashes in First-Ever Primary Debate

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Five politicians vying to lead a coalition of center-left parties in Italian elections due by May held a first-ever primary debate, exchanging views on taxes, the euro and the role of Fiat SpA in the economy, while avoiding the clashes typical of the U.S. debates on which the event was modeled.

For the most part, the candidates agreed on the need to lower taxes, change a labor-market overhaul passed this year and persuade Fiat Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne to expand production in Italy. Yesterday’s debate is the only one scheduled before the Nov. 25 primary to lead the coalition.

Standing side by side, the five candidates addressed the moderator or the audience and avoided challenging each other. The audience was allowed to react, with Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi and Nichi Vendola, head of the Left, Ecology and Freedom, often eliciting more enthusiastic reaction from the public than Democratic Party head Pier Luigi Bersani, who leads in opinion polls.

Renzi, 37, defended the austerity measures imposed by the government of Prime Minister Mario Monti and said there is no room to renegotiate the euro region’s budget deficit rules. “Even discussing changing the stability and growth pact can do harm to Italy,” he said.

Vendola said he agreed with the need to control public finances and said he opposed Monti’s budget-deficit efforts, though he was against a “one-way austerity policy.”

Easing Austerity Pace

Bersani, whose party dominates the center-left forces allying for the elections and supports Monti’s unelected government in parliament, said that the EU’s budget rules should be strengthened and that Italy should demand more investment and an easing of the pace of austerity in return for giving up autonomy over its budget process to Europe.

The candidates agreed that taxes in Italy are too high. Bersani called for lowering rates on medium- and low-income earners, while Vendola said he favored French President Francois Hollande’s decision to raise the top rate on people earning more than 1 million euros to 75 percent.

Bersani has the most support among members of the Democratic Party, recent opinion polls have indicated. Renzi poses the biggest challenge to his leadership, the polls show. The Democratic Party would get most votes if elections were held today, a Nov. 9 poll by SWG indicated.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Davis in Rome at abdavis@bloomberg.net; Chiara Vasarri in Rome at cvasarri@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew Davis at abdavis@bloomberg.net

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