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Italy’s Bersani Seeks Monti’s Job in Move From Unions to Center

Leader of Italy's Democratic Party Pier Luigi Bersani
Italy’s Pier Luigi Bersani is seeking to broaden his appeal beyond his labor base by citing his backing for Monti, while at the same time appeasing the union supporters and anti-government wing of the party that helped win a primary challenge with more than 60 percent of the vote. Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Italy’s Pier Luigi Bersani, the front-runner to succeed Prime Minister Mario Monti, wants markets to know he has fully abandoned the Communist allegiance of his youth.

“He is a former communist, very former,” said Gian Maria Gros-Pietro, former Eni SpA chairman who as chief of Italy’s portfolio of state-owned companies in the 1990s worked on asset sales with then-Industry Minister Bersani. “He has the sensitivity to understand what the electorate thinks and what are the right moves.”

The Senate today is due to begin debating the budget law, the last piece of legislation that Parliament needs to pass before a date for the elections is set. The budget may get final approval in the Chamber of Deputies this week, paving the way for the vote to be called for February.

Bersani, a 61-year-old career politician, is now stressing his commitment to maintain the rigor that Monti imposed, which has shielded the country from Europe’s debt crisis. Bersani is seeking to broaden his appeal beyond his labor base by citing his backing for Monti, while at the same time appeasing the union supporters and anti-government wing of the party that helped win a primary challenge with more than 60 percent of the vote.

The political center is familiar territory to Bersani, who opened up Italy’s energy market as industry minister under former premier Romano Prodi. It’s also slippery ground for a lawmaker who was labeled obstructionist by economists this year when he succeeded in watering down Monti’s labor-market overhaul.

Taking on Berlusconi

Bersani is squaring off against billionaire former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as the general election campaign gets under way. The two will be joined in the race by candidates from Beppe Grillo’s anti-austerity Five Star movement and Italy’s smaller parties. Monti, an unelected technocrat who governed with support from both Bersani and Berlusconi, is being pressed by admirers to enter the campaign.

Bersani, who also had stints at the head of transport and economic development ministries, has been at once blessed and tainted by his association with Monti. His support for the government’s tax increases and budget-saving pension reform bolstered Bersani’s reputation with investors, while aligning him in the eyes of voters with a deepening recession.

“The most likely scenario currently remains a center-left coalition led by Bersani, who would become the next prime minister,” Silvio Peruzzo, an economist at Nomura International in London said in a Dec. 10 research note. That would be “the second-best outcome” after another mandate for Monti, Peruzzo said.

Leading Race

The Democratic Party, or PD, had 33 percent support in an ISPO Ricerche Srl poll published Dec. 10, compared with 16 percent for Berlusconi’s People of Liberty and 18 percent for Five Star. The three biggest parties defining themselves as pro-Monti centrists had a combined 8.8 percent. Forty-nine percent of respondents were undecided or said they would abstain. The margin of error was 5 percentage points.

Italian elections may be held on Feb. 17, Ansa reported Dec. 12, citing Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri. Monti has said he will resign after the 2013 budget law is passed this week.

Bersani, a fan of AC/DC and the Rolling Stones, graduated in philosophy and briefly worked as a teacher before entering politics. A father of two and married to a pharmacist, Bersani chomps a cigar and uses folksy aphorisms like, “We’re not here to primp dolls,” which means he’s looking for concrete results. In a debate this year, Bersani stressed his ties to Catholicism and organized labor with an anecdote about his relationship with the deceased pastor of his youth in the town of Bettola in central Italy.

Altar Boys’ Strike

“The newspapers came out and said there was an altar boys’ strike, which by the way was the right thing to do,” said Bersani. “But he suffered in such a way that I hope up there he accepts my apology.”

Bersani’s dilemma is how to build a coalition broad enough to win and cohesive enough to reliably agree on legislation. His leadership of PD is grounded in support from the CGIL, Italy’s biggest union. His victory over Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi in the Dec. 2 primary ballot was aided by an alliance with the anti-Monti movement of Puglia Governor Nichi Vendola. Bersani’s task in the next six weeks is to appeal to so-called centrist voters, who have rallied around Monti’s agenda.

“He’s a communist who won the primaries against Renzi thanks to the unions’ support,” Nicola Marinelli, who oversees $180 million at Glendevon King Asset Management in London, said by phone. “He won’t do anything that could upset or even bother the unions.”

Primary Challenge

Bersani secured control of the center-left nomination by outflanking Renzi on the left. In two debates, Bersani talked about easing Monti’s pension reform, while Renzi stressed budget rigor as a moral obligation. Since his Dec. 2 primary victory, Bersani has focused more on the points where his policies converge with Monti.

“I reiterate that the rigor and credibility brought to the world by Monti’s government are for us a point of no return,” Bersani said Dec. 13 at a conference in Rome hosted by the foreign press association.

Party Dissolved

As a youth, Bersani joined Italy’s Communist Party, which was at the time the biggest left-leaning political force in the country. When it was dissolved in 1991, Bersani joined a group of former communists that called themselves the Democratic Party of the Left.

PD, Italy’s main political force on the center-left, was created in 2007. The combination also brought ex-communists like Bersani and former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema into the fold. According to an SWG Institute poll published Dec. 14, the two biggest parties retaining the communist label had combined support of about 2 percent.

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