Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti appears as a guest on the RAI television show Porta a Porta (Door to Door) in Rome, Jan. 14, 2013. Grim economic data appear to have hurt Prime Minister Mario Monti's chances to seek re-election, while Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani is emerging as the front-runner in the February elections. (Xinhua/Alberto)
by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Jan. 14 (Xinhua) -- Grim economic data appear to have hurt Prime Minister Mario Monti's chances to seek re-election, while Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani is emerging as the front-runner in the February elections.
Meanwhile, observers said billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi is likely to play a spoiler role after the election, as his gains in polls will made it difficult for either Monti or Bersani to win a comfortable majority in parliament.
Industrial output fell more than forecast in November, signaling slack economic activities ahead. Output fell an annual 7.6 percent on a workday-adjusted basis and 1 percent on a monthly basis, according to figures released on Monday.
Grim business sentiment indicators, combined with weak unemployment figures and consumer confidence index, bode ill for Monti, who has been in office for 14 months.p The technocrat is credited with pulling Italy back from the verge of default. The country's 10-year bond yield, hovering around 7 percent more than a year ago, has fallen steadily since Monti took office.
The yield opened Monday at 4.14 percent, nearing the lowest level since mid-2010, a direct result of the austerity measures Monti's government has pushed through, including cutting government expenditure, raising taxes and combating tax evasion.
These efforts, though effective in restoring investors' confidence and bringing down the country's borrowing costs, have also eroded the prime minister's popularity at home, analyst said.
Monti is campaigning to hold onto his job on the grounds that his economic policies have yet to produce desirable results and need time to grow mature under his stewardship.
"If Monti's argument is that the country is heading in the right direction and that he needs more time, then these indicators saying that things are not heading in the right direction certainly undermine that," said Oliviero Renzo, a statistical analyst with polling company Opinioni.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi, though remaining under 25 percent approval in most polls, is still likely to add another twist to Italy's political course.
The best-case scenario for the three-time premier, analysts said, is to win enough Senate seats to sway the passing of legislation. His strategy is strengthened by an electoral pact with the federalist Northern League.
If either of the other major candidates do not assemble a parliamentary majority, then President Giorgio Napolitano will ask Monti's technocrat government to stay on, or that one of the candidates will give Berlusconi a big say in the government to gain some of his support in return.
That will leave Bersani in the driver's seat. Bersani, a former communist, is the son of a mechanic from the most left-leaning part of Italy, Emilia-Romagna.
Bersani has, as a minister in the past, proved himself a reform-minded figure who successfully took on powerful monopolies in the telecommunications and energy sectors, and had managed to challenge rules that he believed stymied competition in the economy.
However, Bersani is the only major candidate who has never been prime minister, and there is speculation that he might have a hard time keeping his diverse partners, covering much of the political spectrum, in line.