Even by Italian standards, the 2013 election -- taking place Feb. 24 and 25 -- has proved to be a weird one.
In January, former Italian prime minister and current candidate Silvio Berlusconi praised Benito Mussolini, Italy's dictator for some 20 years, saying that the racial laws of 1938, which barred Jews from universities and many jobs, "are the worst fault of Mussolini, who, in so many other aspects, did good." A few days later, Berlusconi questioned a young woman in front of a laughing crowd, asking, "Do you come? Only once? How many times do you come? With what sort of time intervals?"
Berlusconi's competitor Beppe Grillo, the comedian turned populist insurgent who's now enjoying up to 20 percent support, invited al Qaeda to bomb the Italian Parliament, flirted with neo-fascist groups, and chased public-television cameramen away from his meetings.
Meanwhile, Oscar Giannino, a former Republican turned leader of the new party, Fermare il Declino, had to abruptly quit his race when University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Luigi Zingales, one of the party's founders, announced that Giannino's CV was a fabrication. Giannino falsely claimed that he got a master's degree in Chicago and a law degree in Rome. He even made up that, as a child, he had sung in the popular TV show Zecchino d'Oro.
Of course, many voters have come to expect this sort of thing out of Berlusconi, Grillo, and the colorful Giannino. More surprising has been the behavior of the incumbent. As a distinguished economist, college professor, and former European Union commissioner, Mario Monti once looked like what we really needed: an aloof gentleman, conservatively dressed, businesslike, soft spoken. Well, the political bug bit Monti badly. He toyed with a puppy on live television and publicly adopted him, even if the show had only rented the hapless dog from a kennel. Convinced that social media is the highway to contemporary politics, the once-detached Monti started his own Twitter account, @SenatoreMonti, surprising everybody with a barrage of teenagerish "WOW :) :)."
Given this behavior, it's not that surprising that Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the center-left Democratic Party, still enjoys a lead before the polls open on Feb. 24. He has avoided big missteps, running a very low-key campaign. In the early stages of the race, when Berlusconi and Monti together accounted for more than 120 hours of on-air news coverage, Bersani decided to reduce his own TV presence to just 20 hours. A few voices dissented among his staff, but he did not relent.
The pollsters agree that Bersani should get a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament. However, he is still fighting to get control of the Senate, which he needs in order to become prime minister. But a byzantine electoral law, devised in 2005 by Berlusconi's cronies to weaken stable cabinets, leaves all scenarios open. And as he has throughout his career, Berlusconi has bounced back, thanks to his knack for electoral promises. This year, he has proposed to scrap the unpopular real estate tax that Monti recently passed, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own party voted for it. That was then, this is now, and now Berlusconi needs votes; he's polling at around 25 percent. Votes aside, it would be impossible for most Italian cities to square their budgets without the tax -- and markets would be nervous if Italy were to yet again take the path of fiscal recklessness. The worst days of the eurocrisis seem to have ended with more than 100 billion euros in foreign investments recently returning to Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. This is money the job market badly needs, but it may soon run out if the election aftermath is messy.