Europe waits for Italy elections

 
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There was a time when Italian elections were frequent and forgettable. Prime ministers were discarded like last season's clothes.

All of that has changed. What happens in Italy affects the rest of Europe. Campaigning ends on Friday. The result could rattle the eurozone and remind the markets of how little has been settled in the continent's real economies.

The favourite to win is an ex-Communist from the centre left, Pier Luigi Bersani. He is decidedly Mr Normal.

There is nothing extravagant or flamboyant about him. There are no sharp suits. He likes the occasional cigar but he is almost an anti-candidate conducting a low-key conversation with Italy.

When I spoke to him in Naples he sounded a little like Francois Hollande. "I intend to convince Europe," Mr Bersani told me, "that austerity alone is not enough."

He does not believe that the current European policy - the Berlin-Brussels austerity strategy - is correct. He says it needs to be adjusted to push for investment and jobs.

He is committed to reducing the deficit and to continuing with reforms begun under current Prime Minister Mario Monti. He spoke about making the relationship between workers and companies more efficient - code for further freeing up the labour market.

There is no big plan, however, to address Italy's main problem - little or no growth for the past decade.

Grillo wild card

Like other politicians he looks to Europe to find elusive growth. With a slight twinkle in his eye he tells me he believes in the United States of Europe.

The question is whether he will be able to put together a coalition which is credible and long-lasting. And that is unclear.

The wild card in this campaign is Beppe Grillo, a comedian who rages against the political establishment. He has struck a chord with his rants against the corrupt.

His rallies have been so well attended that he has drawn fire from all the other candidates. Mr Berlusconi sees him as a threat to democracy. Mr Bersani warns that he could put Italy at risk in a similar way to Greece.

It is possible that the wild-haired Mr Grillo might get more than 20% of the vote. If that happens he will be a power broker - he is promising a referendum on the euro and believes the current austerity measures are ruining Italy. He has refused to answer whether he would play king-maker and what conditions he might insist on.

A strong vote for Mr Grillo will send a message to Europe that established politicians are at risk at a time of recession and high unemployment.

Monti's struggles

Brussels and Berlin would like to see Mr Bersani form an alliance with Mario Monti as part of a governing coalition.

The prime minister, who took over after Mr Berlusconi's fall in 2011, has proved an awkward candidate. Mr Bersani, speaking in Naples, had a swipe at him saying he never goes onto the streets to meet people, although he did not rule out including him in a future government.

Mr Monti's problem is that he struggles to convince voters he is on the side of ordinary Italians. A partnership with Mr Bersani would be difficult but the markets might prefer such an arrangement to the alternatives.

One theme in this campaign has been Germany. At rally after rally the Germans get a mention. Mr Berlusconi warns against a German Europe. So do some of the socialists.

Mr Monti claimed Angela Merkel did not want a centre-left victory, only for Berlin to insist she had not expressed a preference. Some German politicians have warned against a Berlusconi victory. The interference is widely resented in Italy.

There is a dangerous, unpredictable mood in Italy and the election result remains uncertain.

Mr Bersani told me the people were "disappointed, disillusioned and angry". He said the illusions and fairy tales of the right had been stripped away. Perhaps. There is here the feel of a vacuum, of a country which might need a second election relatively soon.

The fear is of Greek-style paralysis in the euro-zone's third largest economy.

 
Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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