* Centre-left leader contrasts with flamboyant rivals
* Polls suggest Bersani on course to lead next government
* Former communist reassures European partners
By James Mackenzie
ROME, Feb 24 In an electoral landscape crowded
with some of the most colourful personalities in European
politics, Italy's centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani is a
conspicuously unglamorous exception.
Bald, rumpled and habitually seen dragging on a stumpy
Tuscan cigar, opinion polls suggest the 61-year-old head of the
Democratic Party (PD) is the man most likely to lead the next
government after elections on Sunday and Monday.
The son of a mechanic who ran a small petrol station near
the northern city of Piacenza, Bersani made his way up through
regional politics before a spell as a well-regarded industry
minister under former Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
Bersani lacks the professorial aura of Mario Monti, and is
no match as a speaker to the two great showmen of Italian
politics: media magnate Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, the
rabble-rousing comic whose anti-establishment 5-Star movement is
set to enter parliament for the first time.
But Bersani has traded on a homespun image and even rivals
acknowledge his decency.
"I'm sure Bersani would govern well, though he still has to
prove himself. He was a good industry minister," said Monti, who
has been harshly critical of PD allies like Nichi Vendola, head
of the leftist SEL party, or the hardline trade union CGIL.
Bersani has pledged to maintain the broad reform course set
by Monti while easing the burden of austerity policies on
ordinary families and pensioners. He has also expressed strong
reserves about moves to ease hiring and firing rules that were
one of the centrepieces of Monti's reform drive.
Although financial markets appear unruffled at the prospect
of a Bersani victory, doubts persist about his capacity to
emulate German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the last European
centre-left leader to push through major economic reforms.
But while he has none of the international prestige of
Monti, a former European commissioner who has been praised by
U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel,
none of Italy's allies have expressed concern about the prospect
of Bersani taking power.
"I think we're heading in the same direction," said
Jean-Claude Juncker, former head of the group of euro zone
finance ministers, after a meeting with Bersani in Brussels in
"BEER, NOT CHAMPAGNE"
Other rivals have been less kind, deriding Bersani, a former
communist and practising Catholic as an essentially local
politician with narrow horizons and a man who would be unable to
impose himself on his more left-wing partners.
"Bersani is like a beer, not champagne and certainly not
barolo," said one veteran centre-right senator, referring to the
expensive Italian red wine that is popular abroad.
"He's nice, he doesn't scare anyone, he won't have much
effect. He's the image of Italy today," he said.
Exploiting the deep suspicion of the left felt by a
significant part of the electorate, Berlusconi brands Bersani a
communist who would sell Italy out to his radical partners.
He has also done his best to tie Bersani to a scandal at
Monte dei Paschi di Siena, a bank with close ties to regional
politicians from the Democratic Party.
But although Bersani has sharpened his left-wing rhetoric
and has had several spiky exchanges with Monti, with whom he may
still have to form a government alliance, the PD leader appears
more pragmatist than revolutionary.
His immediate priorities include passing anti-corruption
legislation, strengthening Italy's often feeble state
institutions and reducing payroll taxes to boost employment.
He has pledged to ease the burden of a much-hated housing
tax on poorer homeowners by taxing the rich more heavily but has
denied planning a more generalised "wealth tax".
Above all, he has promised not to deal in the kind of "fairy
stories" he accuses Berlusconi of peddling to voters.
In a profoundly conservative country like Italy, Bersani's
provincial image and his prosaic talk of fairness and improving
people's lives may be no handicap after the turbulent era of
Berlusconi and the year of austerity under Monti.
But in a back-handed warning, his ally Vendola noted that
plain talk may not be enough to turn Italy around and a more
inspiring message may be needed if he is to avoid the failure of
previous left-wing leaders.
"Berlusconi understood that the country needed a dream," he
said. "While the left sold itself as a group of good condominium