Berlusconi Closes Gap in Italy as Bersani Faces Defections

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi continued his surge in opinion polls, closing the gap with Pier Luigi Bersani to 5 percentage points as the front-runner struggled to prevent defections.

Support for the center-left coalition led by Bersani, head of the Democratic Party, fell by 1.6 percentage point in a week to 32.8 percent, while Berlusconi’s center-right bloc is now at 27.8 percent, up almost 1.3 points in the week, according to a SWG poll today. The difference between the two is the narrowest of the campaign for elections on Feb. 24-25 vote.

“We’re not shrinking violets,” Bersani said yesterday at a campaign event. The 61-year-old former communist appeared at a rally today with Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, the losing candidate in his party’s primary, in the pair’s first public appearance together since the Dec. 2 competition.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media magnate, used his wealth this week to build campaign momentum. He signed Mario Balotelli to his AC Milan soccer club, bringing the 22-year-old Italian hero in last year’s European Championships back to his home country after two years at Manchester City. Even if Bersani manages to hold on to his advantage in polls, he may fall short of a majority in Parliament due to an electoral law that doles out Senate seats on a regional basis.

Media Blitz

Bersani’s support has suffered amid a media blitz by Berlusconi and an accounting scandal at lender Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA. Berlusconi, 76, has stepped up his anti-austerity rhetoric and has promised to abolish an unpopular property tax known as IMU as Italians fight against unemployment at a 13-year high.

“Austerity in Europe has been imposed by Germany and led to 50 million unemployed or under-employed,” Berlusconi said at a press conference today. “We must have this showdown with Germany. Otherwise the reality will force many countries, one after another, to exit the euro.”

The Democratic Party’s support dropped to 28 percent, SWG said today, down 1.4 points in the week, while Berlusconi’s party gained 2.1 percentage points to 19.3 percent, according to SWG.

“We can’t underestimate Berlusconi,” Renzi said today in a speech in Florence standing on a stage next to Bersani. “Whoever underestimates him is making a mistake.”

Renzi thanked voters who supported him in the primary and urged them to back Bersani in the elections. Bersani drew cheers on stage by taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves in homage to the preferred style of Renzi.

Monte Paschi

Bersani’s Democratic Party has been hurt by its ties to Monte Paschi, according to SWG. The Democratic Party controls the bank’s biggest shareholder through its dominance of local politics in Siena, where Monte Paschi is based. Half of voters assign blame to the Democratic Party for Monte Paschi’s accounting irregularities, SWG said.

“On the one hand it’s galvanizing the disappointed and uncertain voters of the center-right,” SWG said of Monte Paschi in a statement. “On the other, it is slowing and cooling down the center-left electorate.”

Bersani’s biggest challenge is to secure the Senate, where polls indicate his bloc may lose the key regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Sicily, leaving him short of the 158-seat majority. In that case, he may be forced to strike a post-vote alliance, with caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti as the most likely candidate.

Renzi is scheduled to appear next week at an event in Campania, the southern region where Naples is located, and make at least four stops in northern Italy, according to his staff.

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“It might be too late to be bringing Renzi in,” said Riccardo Fagioli, who coordinated Renzi’s primary bid in the province of Pistoia. “Bersani was late because he was convinced he had already won the election.” Fagioli said he will vote for Bersani.

While Renzi, 38, was identified by pollster EMG in November as the most popular candidate among the electorate at large, his policies clashed with those of Bersani. Renzi stressed budget rigor, while Bersani said he planned to ease Monti’s austerity.

Renzi also referred to himself as “the scrap-heap operator” because he said Italian politics needed a generational change and older lawmakers, like Bersani, should be forced into retirement.

“Renzi enjoys a significant following even outside the center-left electorate,” said Renato Mannheimer, head of polling company Ispo Ltd. “He could mobilize a considerable quantity of votes, especially among the undecided.”

The Florence mayor has said he won’t accept a position in a Bersani government, while urging his supporters to vote for him. Some, like Tommaso Nannicini of Bocconi University in Milan, will do so. Others will take their votes elsewhere because Bersani hasn’t done enough to incorporate Renzi’s ideas, Nannicini said.

“You don’t move voters like playing cards,” said Nannicini, an economics professor. “I know a lot of friends who are going to vote for Monti.”

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