Italy's Bersani: ex-communist with a liberal streak

Pier Luigi Bersani, tipped by exit polls on Monday as the favourite to win Italy's general election, is a cigar-chomping former communist with a liberal economic streak and down-to-earth manner.

The head of the Democratic Party (PD) and his smaller leftist allies were ahead with between 34.5 and 37 percent, according to an early count.

But they also showed the right and left neck and neck in the battleground Lombardy region, which could force the PD to form a coalition to govern.

Bersani, 61, won a primary vote in December against his younger rival, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, snapping up 60 percent of ballots in a second round of the leftist vote.

He has also begun to win endorsements in Europe, even though he is still relatively little known outside Italy.

French President Francois Hollande voiced his support for Bersani at a conference for European leftists earlier this month, and the former MEP visited Brussels during his campaign.

The son of a petrol station owner from the hill country town of Bettola in the leftist Emilia Romagna region, Bersani was born on September 29, 1951.

He launched his campaign for nomination in October last year at that same petrol station, where he used to work to pay for his studies.

"We want to turn the page from Berlusconi," he said in an interview with the former communist daily L'Unita on the last day of his campaign.

"Our success will strengthen the battle in Europe for growth and equity."

Bersani graduated in philosophy and briefly worked as a school teacher before launching his political career in the once-powerful Italian Communist Party, which was eventually disbanded in 1991 as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Most former Communist Party members joined what is now the Democratic Party.

Bersani, has struggled to shake off the image of a party apparatchik and has recently begun taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves at campaign rallies while surrounding himself with young people and women.

He was elected governor of his home region in 1993 and appointed industry minister three years later in former premier Romano Prodi's first government.

He was elected member of the European Parliament in 2004, where he worked on consumer affairs and relations with Central Asia.

He also served as transport minister and economic development minister between 2006 and 2008, when he spearheaded a wave of liberalisation measures aimed at bringing in some free-market thinking to revive the economy.

He says he will continue outgoing premier Mario Monti's policies of "discipline and credibility" while emphasising his own priorities of "employment and fairness" as Italy struggles with record-high unemployment and a grinding recession.

Bersani has accused his opponents of trying to sell Italians "shameful fables" of tax cuts and a bright economic future.

"We are living through Italy's worst post-war crisis," he said.

He has said his first decree will be to re-introduce the crime of false accounting which was decriminalised by billionaire tycoon and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Bersani has called on Europe to show more "solidarity" and has said the "urgent issue" for Italy now is more investment and new jobs.

Currently a lawmaker in Italy's lower house of parliament, Bersani is also the founder of a think tank with former finance minister Vincenzo Visco called NENS (New Economy, New Society).

His folksy aphorisms are often mocked by satirists and a bemused Bersani plays along, even appearing on a comedy programme making fun of himself.

Bersani is a veteran rock fan, with varied tastes ranging from AC/DC to the Rolling Stones to Italian star Luciano Ligabue.

He has courted Catholic voters and when asked in a recent television debate who his heroes were, he named the late pope John XXIII -- commonly known in Italy as "the kind pope", who ruled from 1958 to 1963.

Bersani has been a fierce opponent of Berlusconi, his main rival at the February 24-25 polls, but a failure to unite the left against the increasingly weakened media tycoon has threatened to count against him.

Berlusconi ultimately fell from power because of a revolt within his own party, as well as a wave of panic on the financial markets and a series of legal scandals.

Bersani has a solid honest reputation and has been left unscathed by an unprecedented wave of press criticism of the political class in recent months over corruption and out-of-control public spending.

Bersani is married to a pharmacist from his home town and the couple has two daughters.