Italy’s Vote Was Bersani’s to Lose, and He Almost Pulled It Off

The Italian elections were his to lose, and Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani did a really good job of almost doing just that.

Bersani, a former communist who backed Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technical government, squandered a 15-point poll lead to squeak ahead of Silvio Berlusconi by less than half a point, or 129,000 votes out of more than 35 million cast.

To be fair, Bersani’s dismal effort to win over voters was only partially undone by Berlusconi’s strong campaign. He fell short due mostly to the vote turning into a four-way race rather than a head-to-head contest with Berlusconi.

The Five-Star movement of comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, contesting its first national election, emerged as the country’s most-voted single party with 25.6 percent, as Grillo’s anti-austerity diatribes resonated with a huge chunk of Italy’s recession-weary voters. Monti, even though his coalition’s showing was an anaemic 10.6 percent, may have also taken votes from Bersani.

So Bersani’s coalition won the race with just 29.5 percent of the vote, down from the 37.6 percent the Democratic Party and its allies earned in 2008, when it lost to Berlusconi by 9 points. Berlusconi’s bloc won 29.2 percent this time, down almost 20 points from its 2008 victory level.

Still, under Italy’s election law known as the Porcellum, or pigsty in Latin, Bersani gets a bonus premium in the Chamber of Deputies and is automatically handed 54 percent of the seats in the lower house. His problem lies in the Senate, where the premiums are doled out in a series of regional contests, making a national majority elusive. Bersani, even if he teams up again with Monti, is nowhere near a majority in the upper house, and Grillo’s stated goal is to destroy the ruling parties rather than collaborate with them.

So, far from producing a government that could continue or at least maintain the reforms implemented by Monti, which helped narrow the difference between country’s borrowing costs and Germany’s by more than half, the vote has made Italy appear ungovernable. It has raised the prospects of another election this year, where Grillo could be a contender for the top prize.

Markets, which greeted the tumultuous campaign with a yawn, seem to have woken up to the possibility of a prolonged period of political unrest in Italy. The gap compared with German borrowing costs widened by 40 basis points to the highest in more than two months.

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