Italy vote may bring opposite of what country needs

Thu Feb 21, 2013 10:21am EST
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By Barry Moody

ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's resurgence and the rise of a foul-mouthed populist comedian have thrown Italy's weekend election wide open, with deep uncertainty over whether the poll can produce the strong government the country needs.

Italy, the euro zone's third biggest economy, is deep in its longest recession for 20 years. Successive governments have failed to revive an economy stagnant for two decades.

Public fury over record unemployment - especially among the young - tax hikes and economic pain, combined with a recent rash of high-level corruption cases has fanned support for comic Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

A skilful Internet user, Grillo has been the most active on the hustings, touring Italy in a camper van on a "tsunami tour", shouting himself hoarse with obscenity-laced insults at a discredited political class, winning roars of approval from large crowds.

Some analysts say his could be the third biggest single party in the February 23-24 vote with around 20 percent support, ahead of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL).

Berlusconi, 76, spent most of 2012 in the shadows - undermined by a lurid sex scandal - after he was ignominiously bundled out of power and replaced by technocrat Mario Monti in November 2011 as Italy faced a grave debt crisis.

Monti imposed austerity policies and brought borrowing back under control, winning plaudits from European partners.

But the billionaire media magnate burst back in December in an extraordinary blitz of television appearances, belying his age, that halved centre-left Pier Luigi Bersani's 10-point poll lead over the former premier's centre-right coalition.   Continued...

People gather in Duomo Square as Five-Star Movement activist and comedian Beppe Grillo (top C) speaks during a rally in Milan February 19, 2013. REUTERS/Tony Gentile