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Date set for Berlusconi’s last ride

It’s been confirmed that Italy will go to the polls in just over two months, on 24-25 February. Prime minister Mario Monti, who has served since November 2011 as head of a non-partisan government, resigned on Friday following passage of his budget measures through parliament; he will stay on in a caretaker capacity until the election.

It was always the intention that elections would be held in early 2013, but this is a little earlier than had been expected. Monti’s position became untenable after he lost the support of the centre-right majority in parliament – the majority with which Silvio Berlusconi triumphantly returned to power in April 2008.

Since resigning last year at the height of the European financial crisis, Berlusconi has wavered between retirement and plans for a comeback. But this month, despite his age (76) and his myriad legal troubles, he has committed himself to fighting his sixth general election, and his forces in parliament moved into overt opposition to Monti’s technocrats. Yet, broadly speaking, he and Monti come from the same side of politics, and he has offered to take second place if Monti would lead a centre-right coalition.

Monti, who despite his mostly unpolitical background has shown himself to quite a shrewd operator, turned down the offer; clearly he feels that any sort of association with Berlusconi would do him more harm than good. But he has deliberately left open the possibility of returning to government in some capacity: “I would also be ready to assume one day, if required by circumstances, the responsibilities that would be entrusted to me by the parliament.”

But although most of the media attention is on Berlusconi and Monti, the truth is that neither of them is likely to be needed in the next government. The centre-left Democratic Party has for several months enjoyed a large lead in the opinion polls, with Berlusconi’s People of Freedom at best only narrowly ahead of the populist Five Star Movement for second place.

The Italian electoral system gives a big bonus for finishing first, so although the centre-left on its own is well short of majority support, unless something dramatic happens in the next two months it will win the upper hand in parliament and its leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, will be Italy’s next prime minister.

And that, in general, seems to be the way that Europe is moving. The swing to the right that confounded many observers in 2009-11 has passed its peak, and voters are turning to the centre-left: not rejecting austerity, but demanding a softer approach in which the poor will not have to shoulder an unfair share of the burden.

If Italy follows the trend in February, then Berlusconi may finally get his retirement, whether he wants it or not.

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