If the opinion polls are right, European Union politicians and officials will be dealing with a very different Italian prime minister after Italy's general election on 24-25 February.
Pier Luigi Bersani, whose Democratic Party (PD) was leading the field when a ban on the publication of opinion polls came into force two weeks before the election, is a stubborn working-class career politician, quite unlike the courtly, cosmopolitan Mario Monti who has governed Italy at the head of a non-party cabinet since November 2011. The two men nevertheless have at least two things in common: Catholicism and a strong belief in the European Union.
Bersani, said a journalist who has shadowed him, is “un duro” (a tough guy or hard man). He was born 61 years ago, the son of a petrol-pump attendant and mechanic in the Emilia area of Italy.
The PD leader likes to project an earthy, let's-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-down-to-work air tinged with affability. He is the second Emilian in recent years to be chosen to lead the centre-left (the other was Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004 and Italy's prime minister from 1996 to 1998 and from 2006 to 2008). That is more than just coincidence.
The centre-left has never been able to win power in Italy without the support of an exceptionally broad coalition and Emilia is a part of the country in which, historically, liberal Catholics and moderate Communists were often able to find common ground. Prodi, a progressive Christian Democrat, exemplified that tolerant tradition. So – in a different way – does Bersani, an ex-Communist. As a boy, he organised a strike by altar servers. He later wrote his degree thesis on the philosophy of Pope Gregory I.
As minister for economic development in Prodi's second administration, Bersani vigorously pursued a programme of liberalisation that might have been undertaken by a government of the centre-right (though the vested interests it targeted were in many cases those of middle-class professionals, such as pharmacists, or self-employed workers such as taxi drivers who are not natural left-wing voters).
Assuming the PD's alliance with the more radical Left, Ecology and Freedom party (SEL) emerges victorious from the election, the tenor of its policies in government will depend on the mathematics of its victory. A PD official who knows Bersani's thinking said that, even if he does not need their votes for a parliamentary majority, he plans to invite Monti and his supporters to join a coalition government to give it greater legitimacy. But, clearly, Monti's influence will be greater if his support is vital – and he may not wish to join a coalition if it is not.
Bersani is not a thorough-going Brussels insider like Monti, who served two terms on the Commission. But nor is he a complete outsider. He has attended ministerial council meetings during his three stints in cabinet (the others were as minister of industry, 1996-99, and of transport, 1999-2001). Between 2004 and 2006, he was an MEP.
He is understood to favour more far-reaching proposals on banking union, including a resolution mechanism, and be open to the idea of a super-commissioner who could check national budgets. At European Councils, Bersani can be expected to argue for a more growth-oriented policy. But “we would like to combine the Hollande and Schäuble views”, said a source close to him. “After a very severe fiscal adjustment, [Italy's] debt is still going up and we are worried that if more space is not given to the real economy, it will be more difficult to effect structural reforms.”
John Hooper is Italy correspondent of The Economist and southern Europe editor of The Guardian.