* Astute Bersani scores major success with primaries
* Promises to continue prudent Monti policies
* Must persuade wider voter base to vote for centre-left
By Barry Moody
ROME, Dec 3 Pier Luigi Bersani is in pole
position to become Italy's next leader after winning a centre
left primary vote, but the former communist must now convince
nervous markets and conservative voters he won't drag the
country too far to the left.
Bersani, 61, crushed a challenge from Matteo Renzi, the
youthful mayor of Florence, in a run off primary election on
Sunday to choose the centre-left candidate for a national vote
next spring. He won more than 60 percent to Renzi's 39 percent,
taking every region except the challenger's Tuscan home turf.
Bersani is often portrayed as a colourless career
apparatchik, but his insistence on holding elections on the
centre-left against opposition inside his Democratic Party (PD)
was a masterstroke.
It left him as unchallenged leader of the notoriously
factionalised centre-left, which itself emerged reunited from a
vote that garnered extremely valuable public exposure.
Some three million voters participated in the second round
and nearly four million in the first.
Debates between the candidates attracted record television
ratings and reignited public interest in the traditional
political system, which is under serious threat from the
populist 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo.
Latest opinion polls show the centre-left gaining on the
back of the primary process and a small drop in support for
Grillo, who has ruled out any post-election alliances and wants
a referendum on whether Italy should leave the euro. His
movement is now running second.
With the centre-right reduced to shambles by the indecision
of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is still
dithering over whether to stand in the general election, Bersani
appears to have a clear run at becoming prime minister.
But he will soon face a series of tough challenges.
Above all he must convince the conservative voters who
dominate Italy that he is not a dangerous leftist and persuade
investors he will not dump the painful progress made by
technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti in rescuing Italy after it
came close to a Greek-style collapse under Berlusconi.
Bersani has repeatedly pledged to stick to Monti's tough
budget commitments, which have calmed the markets, but says
they must be tempered with policies to boost growth, reduce
unemployment and ease the pain on workers and pensioners.
Bersani must also find a way to end divisions with the large
bloc of Renzi supporters and exploit the modernising Florence
mayor's appeal to centre-right supporters - perhaps by offering
him a party post after the bitterness of the contest subsides.
Senior PD officials have told Reuters they see the rise of
anti-establishment, anti-European forces as their greatest
challenge, together with wooing the nearly 50 percent of voters
who say they will abstain or have not decided how to vote in an
election expected in early March.
"The primaries were very far-sighted. It was the only way to
combat Grillo," PD deputy leader Enrico Letta told Reuters.
Critics say Bersani beat the challenge from the dynamic,
telegenic Renzi, 37, only by his control of the traditional
party machine and making a deal with Nichi Vendola, the head of
the leftwing Ecology and Freedom party.
They say most of Vendola's votes in the first round went to
Bersani in the run-off and he will want payback.
Bersani aides say Bersani headed off this danger by making
all primary candidates, including Vendola, sign a binding pact
to abide by majority decisions in a centre-left government.
"This is a central point. The undertaking to accept a
majority vote on crucial questions," Letta said.
But centre-right politicians and other critics are
sceptical. "Vendola wants to dismantle the Monti reforms....even
if I was convinced he would keep his promises he will not be in
a position do so," said senior PDL politician and former Foreign
Minister Franco Frattini.
Others are more sanguine, pointing out that Bersani
supported Monti's reforms as part of a grand right-left
coalition and big changes would quickly put Italy under renewed
pressure from rising interest rates as markets took fright.
They also say Vendola's bark is worse than his bite and that
he has pursued moderate policies as governor of the southern
region of Puglia since 2005.
"I don't see a spectre of Vendola even for the markets,"
said a senior Italian financial official who asked not to be
named. "A return of Berlusconi would be much more of a spectre
Centre-left officials say Monti's success has in any case
been greatly circumscribed by his need to get approval for all
his measures from a squabbling group of politicians in an
uncomfortable cross party alliance and that a prudent elected
government could do better.
"In the next legislature we must impose policies of
austerity, yes, but also growth. It is a long road. If you only
have tax and austerity, it is predictable that voters deprived
of light at the end of the tunnel either join the populists or
abstain," Letta added.
Bersani was quick to warn his ebullient supporters after the
primary victory that the road ahead would not be easy. "We must
give the centre-left a strong profile for government and change.
We must succeed without telling fairy tales," he said.