Supporters hope Italy's Bersani can unite country

Supporters of Italian centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani are looking to the cigar-chomping former communist to become their next prime minister and unite the crisis-hit country.

"I am expecting change and a sense of direction," 33-year-old Emiliano said at an election rally this week in a small theatre near the Arno River on the outskirts of Florence.

"I think it would be good for the people and for the country," he added.

Enzo Pisanu came from Sardinia for the rally -- co-hosted by Bersani and his former rival for the party leadership, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi.

"I'm passionate about politics! I see a Democratic Party that includes all kinds of different sensibilities," Pisanu said.

A cigar-chomping former communist who now espouses liberal views, Bersani won the PD party nomination against a stronger challenge from the much younger Renzi who is inspired by former British PM Tony Blair and US President Barack Obama.

But at least on the surface there were no tensions on show between the two in the hall decorated with party posters reading: "The Italy We Need".

"I welcome the future prime minister!" Renzi said as he introduced the party leader.

Bersani answered in kind saying he was going for a casual look in shirt sleeves "in honour" of Renzi.

With controversial former premier Silvio Berlusconi rising in the polls ahead of the general election on February 24-25 and with challenges from both outgoing prime minister Mario Monti and populist blogger Beppe Grillo, the Democratic Party (PD) faces a difficult few weeks ahead.

"We have to form a united left," said Pisanu, referring to parties further to the left of the Democratic Party that could take votes away.

Luzia, an official at Florence city hall, said she was attending to support Bersani "in a mission to govern the country."

"The first measures should definitely be social. Support for the elderly, young people, children and schools," she said.

Unemployment in Italy reached a record high of 11.2 percent in December and the economy has been in recession since the second half of last year under the weight of successive austerity programmes.

Bersani has said that if elected he would continue with the reforms and the budget discipline implemented by Monti but do more for growth, jobs and "social equity".

With his trademark down-to-earth banter, Bersani told the party faithful that his opponents were trying to sell Italians "shameful fables".

"We are living through Italy's worst post-war crisis," he said, condemning promises of tax cuts from his main rivals -- Monti and Berlusconi.

"We have seen a festival of promises and generic attacks from our rivals," he said.

Bersani said his programme was based on "morality and work" and his first decree would be to re-introduce the crime of false accounting which was decriminalised by billionaire tycoon Berlusconi.

He also said Europe should show more "solidarity" and that, while it was important to balance public finances, an "urgent issue" for the medium term would be to make investments and offer jobs.

At the end of the event, Paola, 29, said she was impressed by the sense of common purpose between Bersani and Renzi.

"This is the PD I want, this is the PD that wins," she said.