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Shaken Italian parties flounder as election nears
ROME (Reuters) - Gerry Scotti is a reassuringly cheerful television presenter, well known in Italy for advertising a popular brand of rice, but it is a measure of the turmoil in the political system that he was recently also seen as a potential prime minister.
Scotti, a stalwart of Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset TV empire, was mentioned this week by the former premier as a possible leader of his center-right PDL party, shell-shocked after its local election beating last month by maverick comedian Beppe Grillo.
Grillo's breakthrough has spread something approaching panic through the mainstream parties, already reduced to a supporting role, providing parliamentary backing for Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat government.
"There has always been a very powerful strand of anti-politics feeling in Italy and that is coming out very strongly now," Francesco Maietta, head of the social policy division at the Rome-based think-tank Censis, told a conference this week.
Grillo's Five Star Movement, a tiny fringe group until a few months ago, has become Italy's second or third biggest political force on the back of his relentless attacks on corrupt and wasteful politicians.
Scotti quickly denied any interest in a political career, as did Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling anti-mafia memoir "Gomorra," who was mooted as a possible leader of the left, despite lacking any political experience.
But with national elections expected by spring 2013 and public confidence in politicians at rock-bottom levels after a year of recession and an uninterrupted series of scandals, all the main parties are trying to adapt to the new mood.
With opinion polls pointing to big losses for most of the main blocs if elections were held now, party leaders have quelled signs of internal revolt against Monti's increasingly unpopular austerity measures.
A senior member of the center-left PD (Democratic Party) was quickly slapped down this week after calling for early elections in the autumn, and Berlusconi himself was forced to backtrack after suggesting that Italy should pull out of the euro, saying the next day that he was merely joking.
But the febrile climate has all but frozen any political support for further reforms and raised the huge question of what political force may be able to succeed Monti if, as promised, he returns to academic life after the 2013 elections.
In an open letter to political daily Il Foglio on Thursday, Senate President Renato Schifani, a senior member of the PDL, said the mainstream parties, particularly his own, were going through a phase of "acute disorientation".
"I ask myself what will become of Italy in six months or a year?" he wrote, calling on Berlusconi and the rest of the party leadership to accept "profound self-criticism".
He urged the parties to put forward ideas "to give Italy a strong and authoritative government able to meet challenges and tests which, alas, look like being severe, if not at the limit of what can be supported".
It is a view supported outside politics, reflected in repeated calls for strong leadership from groups including the Bank of Italy and employers lobby Confindustria as well as private business executives.
"I have never seen anything like this in over 20 years. I have no idea at all who I'm supposed to deal with," said a senior executive of an international corporation whose job involves close contact with lawmakers.
Anyone hoping for change from Grillo's movement, with its large contingent of internet-savvy youngsters, may also be disappointed. Almost three weeks after winning power in the northern town of Parma, Five Star mayor Federico Pizzarotti has still not been able to form a council.
The center right has had particular trouble in the post-Berlusconi era, unable to escape the embrace of the scandal-plagued billionaire who says he wants to remain as "team coach" even if he does not stand for election.
It has flirted with change, proposing the introduction of a French-style presidential system as part of a long-promised overhaul of Italy's much-criticized electoral law, but its lack of direction has prompted growing alarm within the party.
Schifani's open letter, an extremely unusual step for a politician whose office makes him the second most senior state official behind President Giorgio Napolitano, was in that sense a warning cry.
"If the crisis were not so violent and lacerating, if the confusion of ideas were not so distracting and inconclusive, I would remain rigorously within the limits of impartiality imposed by my institutional responsibilities," he said.
(Reporting By James Mackenzie, editing by Tim Pearce)
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