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Italy’s Bersani Seeks Votes With Appeal for Budget Easing

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of Italy’s most popular party in opinion polls, said he will seek to ease budget rigor if elected prime minister in next year’s election.

Italy should strike a deal with European Union allies for “a relaxation of austerity,” the former industry minister said late yesterday in a televised primary debate with four rivals. The comment showcased a contrast between Bersani, 61, and his chief Democratic Party competitor, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, 37. Any renegotiation of EU covenants would hurt Italy, Renzi said.

The candidates are faced with the task of proposing remedies for Italy’s deepening recession, while convincing voters they won’t squander budget improvements made under Prime Minister Mario Monti. Bersani said he expected leaders in Germany to accept his strategy of loosening deficit commitments in order to stimulate economic growth.

“Even Germany has to understand that we’re all on the same train,” Bersani said.

The primary is scheduled for Nov. 25, with the winner squaring off in a 2013 election against politicians ranging from communists on the left and the former separatists of the Northern League on the right. Italy’s main center-right party, headed by Silvio Berlusconi, also plans a primary, while the Christian democrats and Beppe Grillo’s euro-skeptic movement will also field candidates.

The Democratic Party, or PD as it’s called in Italy, leads all parties with the support of 26 percent of voters, according to a Nov. 9 poll by SWG Institute. Grillo’s 5 Star Movement was second with 21 percent. Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, or PDL, polled at about 15 percent.

Marchionne Cited

Standing side by side in the debate, the candidates avoided challenging each other. They agreed on the need to lower taxes, change a labor-market overhaul passed this year and persuade Fiat SpA Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne to expand production in Italy. The audience was allowed to react, with Renzi and Nichi Vendola, head of the Left, Ecology and Freedom, often eliciting more enthusiastic reaction from the public than Bersani.

“The country is dying by taxes,” Renzi said.

Bersani and the PD are reintroducing themselves to voters after a year in which they renounced participation in both government and opposition. PD members initially provided parliamentary support for Monti’s caretaker government, voting for measures like pension- and labor-reform laws that were controversial among its electorate, and as a consequence suffered in opinion polls.

Monti’s Future

Monti, a former university president and senator for life, has said that while he won’t run in the election, he will be willing to form another government if politicians are unable to create a solid majority without him after the election. The PD, in order to prevent a second Monti term, would need broad support from voters as well as allegiances from smaller parties to secure a mandate to govern.

“Our coalition of progressives must aspire to govern,” Bersani said. “It must open itself to dialogue” with other political forces, he said.

The PD’s primary was opened to candidates from all parties aspiring to lead a center-left coalition. Vendola and Tabacci, former Berlusconi ally, aren’t currently members of the PD.

Bersani and Renzi appealed to their base constituency of laborers last night by targeting Marchionne for criticism. The head of Italy’s biggest manufacturer was also maligned, to cheers from the studio audience, by Vendola and the other two candidates sharing the stage in Rome, Veneto regional councillor Laura Puppato and national representative Bruno Tabacci.

Renzi, who had a public spat with Marchionne last month, said he, like many Italians, “was let down, betrayed” by the manager. Vendola said he never believed in Marchionne, while Bersani called the Fiat CEO’s business plan “rather audacious.”

A Fiat spokesman declined to comment.

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