Impossible Italy

My profile of Pier Luigi Bersani has just been published by Time.

It speaks volumes about the flakiness of Italian politics that the candidate most likely to emerge as Prime Minister from Italy’s elections on Feb. 24 and 25 identifies as his greatest adversary a man who claims not even to be competing for the top job. Pier Luigi Bersani, 61, the leader of the left-of-center Democratic Party, is campaigning as the anti-Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and three-time Premier whose last stint in power ended in November 2011 amid an underage-sex scandal and market turmoil. Berlusconi has told allies that he will not seek to become Prime Minister if his People of Freedom party unexpectedly triumphs later this month. Though technically not the man to beat, the flamboyant 76-year-old remains a potent force in Italian life, a manifestation of a political system that rewards blatant populism and unabashed showmanship.

The balding Bersani, burdened with the downbeat demeanor of a suburban bank manager declining a loan, lacks the tools to fight on those terms. But he’s trying to recast his limitations as an advantage. And so, peppering his speeches with words such as seriousness and sobriety, he makes an unusual pitch to lead. “My objective isn’t to please,” he tells TIME. “My objective is to be believed. Italians have had an overdose of spectacle.”

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Italy’s Elections: Split Vote Yields No Clear Winner and an ‘Unholy Mess’

My piece on the Italian election results has just been published by Time.

The single most important thing to know about Silvio Berlusconi‘s Oct. 26 conviction on charges of tax fraud is that it’s not the first time the former Italian prime minister has been sentenced to jail. In his two decades of battling the judicial system, the billionaire media mogul has previously been found guilty three times, on charges ranging from perjury to illegal financing of a political party to the bribing a member of the tax police. Each time, he’s managed to get the charges overturned or dropped. There’s little reason to suspect that this time will be any different. “When Americans see a newsflash that Berlusconi has been convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, they picture a paddy wagon around the corner ready to take him away in a prison suit,” says Alexander Stille, author of The Sack of Rome, a biography of the former prime minister. “But if you know any thing about the Italian justice system, you know that’s very unlikely that he’ll go to jail anytime soon, or probably ever.”

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How Berlusconi May Upend the Italian Elections

My piece on Berlusconi’s rapid rise in the polls has just been published by Time.

It was supposed to be an easy victory for the Italian center-left candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani. After all, his opponents include Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister facing trial for underage prostitution; Mario Monti, the technocratic Premier many Italians blame for a year of harsh austerity; and — vacuuming up the protest vote — Beppe Grillo, a bombastic comedian who refuses to campaign on television.

Instead, as Italians head to the polls on Feb. 24 and 25, the result is anything but certain. Bersani has spent much of the past two months watching Berlusconi close the gap between them. Since the beginning of the election season, the former Prime Minister has been ever present on Italian television, both on the channels he owns and those of his competitors. In January, he appeared on a program hosted by two of his most ferocious critics, making a show of walking into the lion’s den, and, in front of a record audience, wiping the floor with them (almost literally; at one point, he used a handkerchief to dust off a chair where one of his opponents had been sitting).

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‘Operation Ohio’ Hits Italy’s Election Campaign

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on how Italian politicians are trying out American campaign tactics.

On a bright winter morning in Monza, a town near Milan in Italy’s Lombardy region, a few dozen young political activists walk through neighborhoods rustling up votes for their candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the center-left Democratic Party. Many of the volunteers have traveled from distant cities. “The idea was to come where it’s really needed,” says Elly Schlein, who took a bus from Bologna, some 140 miles away. “Everybody is realizing that Lombardy is where the game will be played.”

Busing in outsiders to knock on doors is an age-old election-year practice in the U.S. Not so in Italy, where campaigns are usually top-down and focus on national rather than local concerns. But this is an unusual election year. No candidate for prime minister has sewn up enough support to be confident of forming a government after ballots are cast on Feb. 24-25; the contest will likely be decided by voters in a handful of closely contested areas, including Lombardy and Sicily, which have emerged as the Italian equivalent of U.S. swing states. To win their support, political pros in Italy are experimenting with American campaign tactics.

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