Bersani Vows to End Italy Austerity in Reversal After Defeat

Democratic Party Leader Pier Luigi Bersani
Democratic Party Leader Pier Luigi Bersani is reversing his approach to budget policy to consolidate party support and appeal to rivals like Beppe Grillo, who won a blocking minority in parliament with an anti-austerity push. Photographer: Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images

Pier Luigi Bersani, whose leadership is in question after he admitted defeat in Italy’s general election last week, pledged to reverse the country’s budget rigor as he renewed his pitch to form a government.

“The vicious link between austerity and recession puts representative democracy at risk and renders it ungovernable,” Bersani said in Rome today in an address to officials of his Democratic Party. “Out of the austerity cage,” he said, as he outlined an eight-point plan for unity.

Bersani, 61, is reversing his prior backing for Prime Minister Mario Monti’s budget policy to consolidate party support and appeal to rivals like Beppe Grillo, who won a blocking minority in parliament with an anti-austerity push.

The Democratic Party leader’s plan won backing from members including Bari Mayor Michele Emiliano, while Naples City Councilor Umberto Ranieri called on Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to step in and set the agenda.

“Bersani clearly admits that the center-left coalition’s relative loss at last week’s elections is mainly due to the country’s widespread sense of malaise,” Annalisa Piazza, a fixed-income analyst at Newedge Group in London, said in an e-mail.

Grillo Stance

Bersani’s eight-point plan nudges his party’s platform toward the positions of Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Grillo’s push for a “citizenship stipend” for the unemployed is echoed by the “salary or minimum compensation” proposed in Bersani’s plan for those without work contracts. The Democratic Party proposal also seeks to cut the number of parliamentarians in half, recalling Grillo’s campaign against political waste. The program is subject to a vote by Democratic officials today.

Bersani was penalized by voters for supporting Monti’s tax increases and promising during the campaign to maintain fiscal rigor. The ex-communist and former industry minister, who partnered with three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi to back the Monti government, squandered a lead in polls before the Feb. 24-25 vote and failed to secure a majority in Italy’s Senate.

The change of strategy leaves Monti, who finished fourth in the election, as the only top-tier Italian politician to insist on the importance of the European Union’s budget rules. Monti, who previously said he was open to talks with Bersani for a parliamentary alliance, told reporters today that he would push for a return to the polls if he can’t find common ground with his rivals.

Monti Call

“If the alternative is a government that will interrupt Italy’s European strategy or its plan for reforms, I believe it’s better to hold new elections,” Monti said in Rome.

Bersani asked his party for its renewed support, requesting that it “guarantee, for the country, the defense and the value of its unity,” even in the event of some “back-and-forth discussion.”

The Democratic Party, whose coalition won the most seats in the four-way parliamentary race, needs help from senators in Grillo’s group to win a confidence vote in the upper house. Bersani reiterated his refusal to renew his alliance with Berlusconi and appealed to Grillo’s supporters for help.

“If this is our objective, I might be wrong but I think there’s no chance of getting there, and every effort would be in vain,” Ranieri of Naples said today at the assembly, which was shown on the party’s website. “Once again we need the president to intervene.”

Napolitano Role

Napolitano, the head of state, orchestrated the plan that brought Monti to power in November 2011 and gave the premier a mandate to raise taxes and shield Italy from the worst of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. That strategy, while successful in lowering Italy’s borrowing costs and calming financial markets, pushed the country deeper into a recession that extended into a sixth quarter in the three months ended Dec. 31.

Bersani’s former rival within the party, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, didn’t speak at the assembly and left while the meeting was under way. Renzi, whose campaign for Italy’s premiership ended in December when he lost a primary ballot, said in an interview televised late yesterday on RAI3 that it was up to Bersani to decide the Democratic Party’s next move.

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