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Italy’s Bersani Seen Fending Off Renzi With Union Support

Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi
Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence. Photographer: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of Italy’s Democratic Party, fended off a leadership challenge from the 37-year-old mayor of Florence in a primary runoff, freeing him to pursue his bid to succeed Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Bersani won 60.9 percent of the vote to 39.0 percent for Matteo Renzi, with more than two thirds of polling stations reporting. The two were vying to lead a coalition of center-left parties in elections due by May.

“We tried to change politics, but we didn’t manage to,” Renzi said in a concession speech. “Now we will demonstrate that politics hasn’t changed us.”

Monti, who was appointed prime minister a year ago, has said he won’t seek another term. By eliminating Renzi decisively in the second round of the primary, Bersani can now concentrate on the general election, where his biggest challenge comes from the anti-austerity Five Star Movement, which has surged in opinion polls.

Bersani’s party supports Monti’s unelected government in Parliament. He and Renzi presented two competing visions for how to remedy Italy’s deepening recession, while trying to convince voters and investors they won’t squander Monti’s budget improvements.

Pension Reform

Renzi has opposed easing Monti’s budget-saving pension reform, while Bersani said changes could be made to give workers more flexibility, a move that may help appease his union base. Bersani promised to champion the weakest members of society, while Renzi invoked future generations when making a moral case for budget rigor.

While Italian politics is defined by schisms and mergers of convenience, both Renzi and Bersani have pledged to stick with the Democratic Party, win or lose. The party, which had 26.7 percent support in a Nov. 23 SWG Institute poll, will need help from both men to fend off Beppe Grillo’s euro-skeptic Five Star Movement and win a stable parliamentary majority.

“The PD is benefitting from the primary effect in the polls that has drawn attention to the party and raises its visibility,” Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of politics at Luiss University in Rome, said Nov. 30 in a phone interview. “The primaries have been well managed and even though there are diverse visions, they haven’t provoked a fracturing of the left.”

Rivals in Disarray

The vote comes at a time when the other main political rival that the Democratic Party will face in the national vote is in turmoil. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said last week that he may break away from the People of Liberty he founded to start a new party and seek the premiership.

The announcement threatens to force the cancellation of the PDL primary called for Dec. 16 that would have probably consecrated Berlusconi’s hand-picked successor, Secretary-General Angelino Alfano, to lead the PDL into the vote.

Italians will vote by May as debt market turmoil and Monti’s austerity budgets sap economic growth. The last parliamentary vote, in 2008, was won by Berlusconi and his People of Liberty party. Berlusconi’s popularity has plummeted since his government collapsed last year.

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