Two months ago, his election as Italy’s next prime minister seemed all but assured.
But a lackluster campaign and a persistent failure to land knockout blows against his main adversary means that victory is by no means certain for Pier Luigi Bersani when Italians vote in the country’s most crucial election in years on Sunday and Monday.
Considered by many Italians to be a decent but dull party apparatchik, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party has a tough fight on his hands to become Italy’s next premier. Mr. Bersani's support, which seemed so strong around Christmas, has been eroded as voters have swung behind Silvio Berlusconi, despite the scandal of the past few years, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by a bearded comic from Genoa, Beppe Grillo.
The last polls published before the election showed that support for the Democratic Party was around 34 percent, with Mr. Berlusconi’s center-right coalition nipping at their heels with 29 per cent. Mr. Grillo’s maverick, ill-defined movement, which relies heavily on online activism and social media, was at 16 percent.
While Berlusconi’s sexist quips, multiple corruption cases, and private-life entanglements have made him notorious around the world, his opponent is little known outside Italy.
The son of a mechanic, Bersani was born in 1951 in the mountain village of Bettola in the left-leaning, Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. He went on to study philosophy at Bologna University – the oldest university in Europe, predating even Oxford and Cambridge.
He trained as a school teacher but then went into politics, joining the powerful Italian Communist Party and then, when it was disbanded after the end of the Cold War, its successor, the Democratic Party.
In 1993, he was elected governor of his home region and three years later appointed industry minister in the government of Romano Prodi, a center-left prime minister.
As minister for transport and economic development between 2006 and 2008, he introduced a raft of liberalizing economic measures, tackling monopolies and opening up previously closed sectors of the economy from pharmacies to newspaper kiosks.
His reforming past augurs well for his chances of reforming Italy’s sclerotic economy, analysts say.
“As a minister, Bersani was far more of a reforming free marketeer than most of the center-right. He shares much policy with [former technocratic Prime Minister Mario] Monti,” says Professor James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome.
Although on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Berlusconi and Grillo are both capable of lighting up crowds like Saturday night comedians, using a potent mix of populist rhetoric, folksy asides, and off-color jokes.
Bersani, in contrast, often appears worn-out and formulaic, offering the sort of airy rhetoric about freedom, values, and equality that is so beloved of the Italian left.
At a rally for the party faithful in a 19th century theater in Rome earlier this month, his address was preceded by rousing pop music and a clip of Barack Obama at a Democratic convention in the United States.
But Bersani's performance was a pale imitation of the US president, as he stood up on a podium backed by a giant poster bearing worthy but woolly words like fraternity, morality, rights, and Europe.
Bersani accused Berlusconi of “deceiving Italians” with promises that would be valid only until the day of the election, and would then be “thrown in the bin.”
Despite those and other criticisms from his adversaries, Berlusconi has stormed ahead in the polls in the last few weeks, narrowing a double-digit gap between his coalition and the Democratic Party to just five percent.
He has managed to do so with a media blitz, appearing on endless talk shows and current affairs programs, and with an audacious promise to scrap a much-hated property tax and to refund all the Italians who have paid it.
The idea has been widely criticized by his political opponents, who on Wednesday accused him of trying to “buy” votes – and possibly breaking electoral laws.
Economists estimate that the refund would cost Italy up to eight billion euros, at a time when it is struggling to emerge from one of the deepest recessions since World War II. But it has struck a chord with Italians – a poll this month found that nearly 40 percent of voters viewed the proposal positively.
If elected, Bersani faces enormous challenges, not least the task of reducing unemployment from 10 percent, a rate which rises to 35 percent among Italians aged 18 to 35.
He will also need to rein in Italy’s 1.9 trillion euro public debt – the highest in the euro zone after Greece. Unless he can continue the spending cuts and austerity agenda implemented by Mr Monti’s band of technocrats, Italy risks once again being the target of debt concerns and bond market speculation.
While his Democratic Party is expected to win a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, it is unlikely to be able to do the same in the Senate, the upper house. That would enable Berlusconi and his allies to block legislation they do not like and cause gridlock.
To try to build a more solid majority, Bersani has said he is open to the idea of an alliance with Monti, the outgoing premier. But whether such an alliance would last is up for debate.
“Will the odd couple of Monti and Bersani manage to maintain a government for more than a few months? Grillo has given them six months,” says Professor Walston.
“My own guess is a little more optimistic. External pressure from the markets, the European Central Bank and the European Union, and internal ambition in the center-left and fear of repeating the splits of the Prodi governments, will hold the government together, maybe even for the full five years.”
As Bersani and his supporters prepare to hold their last pre-election rally in Rome on Friday, Berlusconi delivered a characteristically memorable put-down.
“At the very most, Bersani might be all right as the mayor of Bologna,” he said.
As he sets his sights on victory on Monday, the leader of the left must hope that not too many Italians agree.