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Italy's Bersani: Ex-communist with liberal streak

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Pier Luigi Bersani, who got the nod on Friday to try to form a new Italian government after inconclusive elections, is a former communist with a liberal economic streak and down-to-earth manner.

The son of a car mechanic from the hill town of Bettola in the leftist Emilia Romagna region, Bersani was born on September 29, 1951.

The cigar-chomping politician launched his campaign last year at his father's workshop, where he used to work to pay for his studies in philosophy.

Bersani also briefly worked as a school teacher before launching his career in the once-powerful Italian Communist Party, which was eventually disbanded in 1991 as the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

Like many former Communist Party members, he joined what is now the Democratic Party but has never quite shaken off the image of an apparatchik despite surrounding himself with a youthful team.

Portrayed by his supporters as an honest, sensible politician suited to times of economic crisis, the 61-year-old is seen by critics as an uncharismatic leader who could struggle to revive the economy.

Given the multiple scandals involving his arch-rival Silvio Berlusconi and the toll austerity measures have taken on outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti's popularity, Bersani could conceivably have sailed to an easy victory, and his extremely narrow win last month was seen as a setback.

In the hours after the election drama, Bersani warned that the rise of the Five Star Movement protest party in the vote showed that "the bell tolls also for Europe" because of a groundswell of opposition against unpopular budget cuts.

During political talks on a new government this week he warned that the demand for stability came not just from Italians "but from Europe, which is attentively and anxiously watching us".

"We have to do the simple things Italians are asking of us, that's the only way to get a government off the ground," he said, citing a reform of the labour market and financial aid for struggling businesses among his key proposals.

At the start of the election campaign, he won convincingly in a primary battle against his much younger rival Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and a reformer similar to Britain's Labour prime minister Tony Blair in the 1990s.

Bersani's political career began when he was elected governor of his home region in 1993.

He was appointed industry minister three years later in former centre-left prime minister Romano Prodi's first government.

Bersani 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 an economic liberalisation wave in a bid to boost anaemic growth.

He says he will continue Monti's policies of "discipline and credibility" while also emphasising "employment and fairness" as Italy struggles with record-high unemployment and its longest recession in two decades.

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

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 courted Catholic voters and when asked in a debate who his heroes were, he named the late pope John XXIII -- commonly known in Italy as "Good Pope John" -- who reigned between 1958 and 1963.

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

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130322/italys-bersani-ex-communist-liberal-streak