* 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 21 (Reuters) - 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 December.
“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 administrators.”