Italy's real election battle is Monti vs Berlusconi

Tue Jan 8, 2013 8:33pm EST
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By Barry Moody and Paolo Biondi

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's election campaign is shaping up as a bitter contest not between right and left but between Silvio Berlusconi and outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti to win the balance of power after the February poll.

The final lines were drawn on Monday when Berlusconi sacrificed his own candidacy for prime minister as the price for winning a crucial new alliance with his estranged allies in the devolutionist Northern League.

This alliance is aimed at blocking control of parliament by the center-left, which opinion polls show as virtually certain to win the February 24-25 elections.

But if Berlusconi succeeds, Italy is likely to face renewed instability and legislative paralysis which could make it once again the biggest concern in the euro zone.

Italy narrowly avoided a Greek-style meltdown in November 2011 when Berlusconi, weakened by a sex scandal, was forced out as prime minister and replaced by Monti.

If Berlusconi gains the balance of power he could frustrate center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani in fulfilling his promise to stick to Monti's austerity and pro-European policies, which have brought Italy relative stability in the past year.

The billionaire media owner's biggest problem in implementing his strategy is Monti, whose centrist alliance has the same aim as Berlusconi: winning enough seats in the Senate to give it influence way beyond its likely share of the poll.

While the center-left is almost certain to win the lower house, the real battleground will be in the much less certain Senate contest.   Continued...

Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti poses before the taping of the talk show "Otto e mezzo" (Eight and a half) at La7 television in Rome January 4, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi