Profile: Pier Luigi Bersani, Italy’s centre-left leader

Profile: Pier Luigi Bersani, Italy’s centre-left leader

Pier Luigi Bersani, 2 December 2012
Pier Luigi Bersani is a former Communist who has pushed economic reform

Pier Luigi Bersani, the Italian centre-left’s candidate for prime minster, is a down-to-earth veteran of party politics who led efforts to liberalise the economy as a government minister.

Although exit polls after the February general election indicated he would be Italy’s next leader, when it came to the ballot box his coalition was unable to secure outright victory in both houses of parliament.

In his stolid style, he stands in stark contrast both to the man he defeated in the Democratic Party’s primary, the youthful mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, and to the man who has dominated Italian politics for most of the past two decades – Silvio Berlusconi.

“We have to win but we can’t win at any price,” Mr Bersani said after comfortably securing his party’s nomination for the elections in February 2013.

“We can’t win by telling fairy stories because you can’t govern that way. It won’t be easy but the country needs it.”

Mr Bersani, 61, is the son of a mechanic and owner of a small petrol station near the northern city of Piacenza. A practising Catholic, he wrote a thesis on the history of Christianity for his philosophy degree at the university of Bologna.

After a brief spell as a teacher, he worked his way up through the ranks of the Communist Party in the regional stronghold of Emilia Romagna.

He became the party’s regional president in 1993 as the Italian left was struggling to modernise, following the end of the Cold War and cross-party corruption scandals.

Humble approach

In 1996 he entered government for the first time as industry minister under then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi. He pushed through the liberalisation of the electricity market in 1999, before switching to the transport ministry.

After the centre-left lost power in 2001, Mr Bersani embarked on a nation-wide tour of Italian industrial sites, writing a book and then a series of policy proposals as he returned to government as minister of economic development in 2006.

But his campaign to liberalise several more areas of the economy ran into fierce resistance from Italy’s entrenched interest groups – a campaign that was later picked up by technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti.

In 2009 the left was back in opposition, and the recently formed Democratic Party held a primary to elect its leader. Mr Bersani easily beat the more centrist Dario Franceschini.

True to his roots, Mr Bersani appears most at home chatting with the party faithful at rallies or summer festivals, cigar between the teeth.

Critics have accused him of being outdated, but the left will be hoping that his humble, pragmatic approach will have a broad appeal.

Mr Bersani has, however, tried to freshen his image by engaging in social media. After his victory over Mr Renzi, he tweeted a photo of himself pouring beer in a bar for party volunteers.

He has also pledged to “make space” in the party for younger generations.

Focus on jobs

Italy’s left has been wrought by divisions since the 1990s, and it repeatedly failed to present a convincing alternative to Mr Berlusconi’s coalitions.

Now the left is much more united and it is the centre-right in relative disarray – but Mr Bersani is still likely to face a challenge keeping the various strands of the left behind him.

He was backed in the second round of the primary by the radical left Ecology and Freedom movement of Nichi Vendola, yet may face dissent from younger or more centrist voices.

Party officials say that if he comes to power, Mr Bersani’s priorities would include cutting payroll taxes to create jobs, strengthening anti-corruption laws, and bolstering state institutions.

“It won’t be simple but we can’t ignore the fact that we are facing the greatest crisis of the post-war period and the greatest problem of all is jobs,” Mr Bersani said.

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