Italy’s Bersani Faces Primary Runoff in Bid to Succeed Monti

Democratic Party Head Pier Luigi Bersani
Democratic Party head Pier Luigi Bersani. Photographer: Alberto Pizzoli /AFP/Getty Images

Democratic Party head Pier Luigi Bersani will need a second primary victory before he can lead the campaign to succeed Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Bersani won 44.9 percent of the primary vote compared with 35.5 percent for Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, the closest of the four other candidates who were vying to lead a coalition of center-left parties in elections due by May, based on the final tally of 3.1 million votes. Since Bersani, 61, failed to win more than half of the vote, he will face Renzi in a second round on Dec. 2.

“Now we start over again from zero and there is no better challenge then one when they see us at a disadvantage,” Renzi told supporters in Florence last night.

Bersani, a career politician who has led the party since 2009, is trying to head off an insurgency by Renzi, 37, who has blamed party leaders for contributing to Italy’s dysfunctional political system and economic stagnation. He’s campaigned for a new generation to take over.

Monti, who was appointed prime minister a year ago, has said he won’t seek another term. Bersani’s party, which supports the government, led former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty by more than 10 percentage points in recent polls. Bersani is looking to eliminate Renzi decisively in the second round so he can concentrate on the general election, where his biggest challenge comes from the anti-austerity Five Star Movement, which has surged in polling.

Support Rising

“With the PD likely to be the most voted party next year, those voting today are likely choosing Italy’s next prime minister,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of politics at Luiss University, said before the vote.

Support for the Democratic Party has risen from 23.2 percent in June to 26.7 percent this month, according to polls by the SWG Institute published Nov. 23. That compares with the 21.1 percent for the Five-Star Movement, led by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo. Berlusconi, whose party had 15.3 percent, said Nov. 24 he’s mulling a comeback. Last month, he announced he would not run for prime minister.

Berlusconi’s Return

“The People of Liberty party has suffered a decline in its image and in polls for the simple reason that I was absent,” Berlusconi told reporters. Berlusconi may announce a new political party by Nov. 29, Il Giornale, owned by the Berlusconi family, reported yesterday.

Also in the primary race were Nichi Vendola, head of the Left, Ecology and Freedom party, which would get 5.3 percent support in the national elections, according to SWG. The remaining candidates were Bruno Tabacci, a Christian Democrat and former deputy head of the Parliament’s budget committee, and Laura Puppato, a regional politician from the Veneto region.

Vendola got 15.6 percent of the primary vote, while Puppato got 2.6 percent and Tabacci 1.4 percent, according to results posted on the Democratic Party’s website.

While Renzi has already said he would stick to Monti’s austerity program and economic overhaul, Bersani has stressed the need to help workers and pensioners suffering from higher taxes and has signaled he won’t blindly support fiscal rigor that could further sap growth.

The son of a mechanic who served as development minister under former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Bersani has been reluctant to break the party’s ties with the country’s main union CGIL.

Bersani’s link with the CGIL “is an organizational advantage and might well be the reason why he will likely emerge as the winner” D’Alimonte said. “Still, whoever eventually wins should seek an agreement with the other one so that the support the party gained during the campaign is not lost and the risk of defections is minimized.”

Renzi last night indicated that he was prepared to back Bersani if he loses the second round.

“The next week we will put our bellies to the ground and try to beat Bersani respectfully and with loyalty,” he said last night. “If we don’t, we will remain by his side.”

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