|Italian center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani gestures during a RAI1 television program in Rome, capital of Italy, Jan. 10, 2013. (Xinhua File Photo/Alberto Lingria)
By Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Feb. 14 (Xinhua) -- With the start of voting that will select Italy's next prime minister just 10 days away, a 54-year-old president of the tiny left-wing party Left Ecology Freedom has moved to center stage as the campaign of front runner Pier Luigi Bersani sputters in the face of a media barrage from rival Silvio Berlusconi.
Italian law prohibits any official polls from being released after Feb. 8, but the last set of polls showed that Bersani's lead over Berlusconi, which had been 17 percentage points in December, had shrunk to around 5 points. And it may be even closer now: an internal Berlusconi poll leaked to the press shows the controversial billionaire just 2 points behind Bersani.
Officials from the Bersani campaign insist they are not worried, but speculation is on the rise that Bersani is being forced to choose between Nichi Vendola, the openly gay leader of Left Ecology Freedom and incumbent Prime Minister Mario Monti, who, according to the last round of polls, is running a very distant third among likely voters.
Vendola and Monti, a centrist, both say they refuse to be part of a coalition that includes the other.
There's little doubt that Monti's support would help Bersani much more than Vendola will: in the final polls, Monti had support of around 12 percent of the electorate, compared to around 1 percent for Vendola. But Vendola has been a faithful Bersani ally since the start, while Monti has run his own campaign against Bersani and Berlusconi.
Bersani has said he has no intentions of dropping Vendola from his coalition, though he has not closed the door on discussions with Monti, and Monti insists he is remaining in the race in order to win it. But the question remains: would Bersani make a change if it became the difference between winning and losing?
"That is the big question," said political scientist Antonio d'Ancona, from Verona University. "If Bersani had to choose between sticking with Vendola and Berlusconi becoming prime minister, to pushing Vendola out, joining with Monti, and winning the election, which would he choose?"
Monti opposes legalizing gay marriage in Italy, one of Vendola's main issues, while Vendola has said Monti's economic policies are too harsh. The two men are thought to dislike each other personally.
Berlusconi is a polarizing figure in Italy. A powerful media mogul, he has been prime minister three times before. But he is also known for personal and legal scandals, and he was forced to resign from his last government in November 2011 when it appeared Italy was at risk for falling victim to the European debt crisis. Monti replaced him as the head of a technocrat government that has been in power since then.
Monti's austerity measures have pulled Italy back from the brink of economic collapse, but they have been very painful for most Italians, suffering from the weight of reduced government services, a higher overall tax burden, and moribund economic growth. Those difficulties have cost Monti in his pursuit of a term as the head of an elected government.
Berlusconi is running against Monti's record, promising to lower taxes and reinstate some of the spending programs Monti eliminated, and he says he has a plan to speed up economic growth. He has also promised to resist many of the mandates from the European Union, which he says Monti -- a former European Commissioner -- has been too eager to follow.
Bersani seems at least open to broaching the subject: "I have always said that I want 51 percent, but that I'd be ready to turn to other that are against Berlusconi ... if I had 49 percent. And so I am ready to turn to other groups, including Monti," Bersani said.
A linkup between Bersani and Monti might give Berlusconi a small boost by allowing him to tarnish Bersani with the same anti-Monti charges that he would be too pro-Europe.
But pollsters say there is little doubt that even if there were a few defections from a Bersani-Monti alliance, and even if it helped Berlusconi step up his rhetoric another notch, that the Bersani-Monti team would have a comfortable lead in both houses of parliament.