* Leader's control of party machinery likely to prove
* Unglamorous campaigner counting on experience to win
* Pledges to keep tight budget rein, give more help to
By James Mackenzie
ROME, Nov 22 According to a popular YouTube
parody, supporters of Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of Italy's
Democratic Party, are the kind of people who mentally convert
euros into lira, grip the steering wheel while driving and try,
in vain, to break up fights.
But for all his image of slightly hapless decency, the 61
year-old former communist, who has led Italy's biggest
centre-left force since 2009, is favoured to become its
candidate for prime minister in next year's election.
The son of a mechanic who ran a small petrol station near
the northern city of Piacenza, Bersani has little of the
media-friendly aura of Matteo Renzi, the smart young mayor of
Florence who is his main rival in the race.
Bald, plainly dressed and regularly seen with a stumpy
Tuscan cigar clenched between his teeth, his rumpled air is the
opposite of the template for image-conscious, centre-left
reformers set by Britain's Tony Blair.
But in a profoundly conservative country like Italy, a
homespun manner does not necessarily hurt and in any case,
Bersani has one big advantage, his control of the Democratic
Party (PD) machine.
The party is not the platform of a single, charismatic
leader like Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party but its
chief must still manage its competing factions and interests and
Bersani's rivals are no match in that respect.
"This isn't about appealing to voters, it's about appealing
to the party and Bersani has the party in his hands," said one
PD official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A career politician, Bersani is the only one of the five
candidates in Sunday's centre-left primary to have served as a
government minister and is pitting his experience against
Renzi's image as a modernizer.
He is regularly denounced as an ex-communist by his
opponents on the centre-right and his wider electoral appeal is
perhaps less than Renzi's but his record does not suggest any
radical shifts in policy if he became prime minister.
A well-regarded industry minister under former Prime
Minister Romano Prodi in the 1990s, Bersani pushed some of the
same kind of moves to open up the economy to more competition
later undertaken by Mario Monti.
He has supported Monti's technocrat government while it
passed a series of tax hikes, spending cuts and labour market
reforms that were bitterly resented by his union allies.
Like Renzi, he has also pledged to respect Monti's
commitment to cut Italy's budget deficit and says he will not
stick blindly to growth-sapping austerity measures but will also
help workers, students and pensioners suffering in the slump.
When Bersani was first appointed minister in 1996, the
parish priest in his home town of Bettola rang the church bells
in celebration, an unusual thing to do in a town that
traditionally voted for the centre-right.
Assuming he gets through the primary and a likely second
round runoff on Dec. 2, Bersani will be hoping that he can
achieve a similar appeal across party lines with voters in next
year's national election.