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Part II

Berlusconi's own party has boosted its standing in polls over the past month, helped by the former premier's veteran campaigning skill and his dominance of the country's private TV channels. But nobody apart from his own supporters believes he is likely to win this time.
POPE FACTOR
Pope Benedict's unexpected resignation this month has pushed the parliamentary election off the front pages in Italy, giving Berlusconi less print space and TV air time to press his populist message. The main beneficiary appears to be Grillo, whose strategy of ignoring mainstream media and campaigning on the Internet has been unaffected by the news from the Vatican.
Investors above all want a government which will tackle the reasons for Italy's lackluster performance. Italy has hardly grown since the birth of the euro in 1999 and its economy has slumped faster since the 2007 financial crisis than any other in Europe except Greece. Last year, Italy contracted by 2.2 percent, according to official statistics.
Businessmen complain of three main obstacles: stifling bureaucracy, labor laws which offer workers so much protection that they encourage slack performance, and a dysfunctional court system which makes it hard to enforce contracts and collect debts. All are deep-rooted problems and none is likely to be tackled effectively by a weak and divided government.
"Nobody in Italy is ready to make the reforms our country needs right now," said the chief executive of a major Italian company, speaking off the record.
"I am deeply convinced that without a major change in labor flexibility, we will not be able to increase productivity. My personal experience is that Italian labor is fantastic. But if you take a very good worker and tell him his job is completely safe, you will turn him into a slacker."
Italy's byzantine court system - where cases can languish for years - and its legendary bureaucracy are major obstacles to foreign investment and competitiveness, business people and diplomats say. "Foreign companies are surprised by how hard it is to get things done here which we all thought had been agreed in Brussels 20 years ago," said one senior European diplomat.
Monti's technocratic government won plaudits from business for reforming Italy's pension system but its efforts to reform labor laws did not enjoy similar success. Monti's government lasted 13 months until Berlusconi's bloc triggered its collapse by withdrawing support. Some observers in Italy don't believe that the next parliament's make-up will be nearly as conducive to reform as the outgoing one.
MUDDLE-THROUGH OUTCOME
"I want to be optimistic but my best guess is that they will keep to this muddle-through scenario in the next parliament with lackluster results for the economy," said a second senior diplomat. "This country needs a new generation of political leaders."
Key among the concerns of diplomats and business people is the disparate nature of the centre-left coalition leading in polls.
Bersani's election alliance is made up of four main parties, stretching from the former communist Vendola through the Christian left to socialists and centrists. If it is unable to govern alone, as most polls predict, it will need the support of Monti's bloc - itself made up of three parties.
Bankers fear that a government made up of seven different groups of widely varying political hues is highly unlikely to agree on the tough, radical reform measures the country needs.
"If we have a government made up of Bersani, Monti and Vendola, they will argue all the time," said the chief executive. "Bersani and Vendola's capacity for reform is almost zero." Comparing the present Italian centre-left candidate to the former German chancellor whose successful labor reforms belied his socialist roots, he added: "Bersani is no Schroeder".
Bersani's economic spokesman Stefano Fassina insists that the centre-left fully understands the urgency of Italy's economic plight and is committed to deliver on measures to stop the rot. But he puts the emphasis on making the public sector more efficient and persuading Berlin to tone down budget austerity at a European level rather than pursuing labor reform in Italy. Fassina insists that public commitments by Bersani and Vendola on an agreed program will minimize disagreements but he does admit to concern about how a centre-left administration could work with Grillo's unpredictable forces.
"It's impossible to have any discussions with Grillo as a party," he said. "We hope that in parliament some of his MPs will be pragmatic enough to agree on reasonable measures."
With so much uncertainty about the election and the chances fading of it returning a strong, stable reformist government, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Italy's slow, steady economic decline will continue regardless of the result.
"We've seen a steady economic decline in Italy over the past 20 years and it's very hard to see any outcome from this election which will reverse that. The reforms which would really get the country going again are out of reach," concluded the European diplomat.
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