ROME – Pier Luigi Bersani, now a favorite to be Italy’s next prime minister in a 2013 vote after being picked by center-left supporters Sunday, is a cigar-chomping former communist with a liberal economic streak.
Early results showed the 61-year-old Democratic Party leader won a primary against his more charismatic rival, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, thanks to his government experience, a down-to-earth manner and his antiausterity rhetoric.
The son of a gas station owner from the hill country town of Bettola in the leftist Emilia Romagna region, Bersani was born Sept. 29, 1951.
He launched his campaign for the nomination in October at that same gas station where he used to work to help pay for his studies.
“Without roots, you can’t produce new leaves,” he told his supporters there.
He graduated with a philosophy degree and briefly worked as a schoolteacher before launching his political career in the once-powerful Italian Communist Party, which was eventually disbanded in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Most former Communist Party members joined what is now the Democratic Party.
Bersani was elected governor of his home region in 1993 and then appointed as industry minister in 1996 in former Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s first government.
He also served as transport minister and as economic development minister between 2006 and 2008 when he spearheaded a wave of privatization moves.
He says he will continue Monti’s policies of “discipline and credibility” but will also emphasize his own priorities of “employment and fairness.”
A poll by the Cise-Luiss political research center this month said Bersani represented “the soul of the identity of the left.”
The Democratic Party is tipped by all recent polls as the likely winner of a general election expected in April 2013, although without a majority.
Currently a deputy in Italy’s lower house of Parliament, he has also been a member of the European Parliament and has set up a think tank with former Finance Minister Vincenzo Visco called NENS (New Economy, New Society).
With his background as a longtime party insider and his avuncular image, Bersani has had to work hard at winning wider appeal. He has surrounded himself with a group of younger aides and has promoted women through party ranks.
His folksy aphorisms are often mocked by satirists and a bemused Bersani plays along, even appearing on a comedy program making fun of himself.
Bersani is also a veteran rock fan, with varied tastes ranging from AC/DC to the Rolling Stones to Italian star Luciano Ligabue.
He has also courted Catholic voters. When asked in a recent television debate who his heroes were, he named the late Pope John XXIII — commonly known in Italy as “the kind pope” who served from 1958 to 1963.
Bersani was a fierce opponent of Silvio Berlusconi but his failure to unite the left against the increasingly weakened media tycoon counts against him.
Berlusconi ultimately fell because of a revolt within his own party, as well as a wave of panic on the financial markets and a series of legal scandals.
Bersani does, however, have a solid honest reputation and has been left unscathed by an unprecedented wave of press criticism of the political class in recent months over corruption and out-of-control public spending.
Bersani is married to Daniela Ferrari, a pharmacist from his hometown, and the couple have two daughters.