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.”

Read the rest.