Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani prepares before the taping of the talk show "Otto e mezzo" (Eight and a half) at La7 television in Rome on Jan. 7, 2013. (GIAMPIERO SPOSITO/REUTERS)

At the tender age of 12, Pier Luigi Bersani led his fellow altar boys in a strike against their parish priest to win back tips from Easter services. Today, the former communist turned friend of the free market is poised to face a far greater challenge: saving the world’s eighth-largest economy.

In a race worthy of surrealist director Federico Fellini, Italy is lurching toward elections next month with Bersani’s center-left coalition running substantially ahead of those backed by his three major rivals — billionaire playboy Silvio Berlusconi, comedian Beppe Grillo and Italy’s onetime fiscal savior Mario Monti.

For global markets stung by more than three years of Europe’s debt crisis, the outcome here could not be more important. With a bigger borrowing burden than any of its neighbors save near-bankrupt Greece, Italy remains one of the biggest wild cards in the long-term viability of the euro. Should its next leader veer too far from the austerity and economic reforms pushed through last year to pull Italy back from the brink of financial collapse, analysts fear a dangerous return of market panic just as the continent’s woes appear to be finally bottoming out.

Enter Bersani, a mechanic’s son from Emilia-Romagna, the “red region” of the Italian left, whose economic policies have become more market-friendly than many of his right-wing rivals. In fact, industrialists here now credit the current leader of the Italian center-left with being one of this nation’s free-market pioneers.

While serving in left-leaning cabinets in the 1990s and 2000s, the cigar-chomping 61-year-old surfaced as a powerful advocate of reforms considered key to modernizing the business climate in long-stagnate Italy. Bersani took on the country’s energy and telecommunication monopolies and challenged sacred rules that limited competition in the sale of everything from savory focaccia bread to diapers.

He has nevertheless raised eyebrows with investors by striking a coalition deal with more strident leftists as well as for openly suggesting he would move to fine-tune, if not overhaul, at least some of the budget-cutting measures pushed through last year. Such changes, he has said, would include higher taxes on the rich to lessen the burden on the poor.

In an extensive interview this month with The Washington Post, he additionally suggested that, if elected, he would push to renegotiate strict European limits on budget deficits and debt in a bid to simulate growth.

Yet Berlusconi, who represents the center-right, has proven a far more outspoken critic of new taxes and spending cuts than Bersani. The 76-year-old media tycoon has blasted the reforms made after he was forced from office in November 2011 as diktats from Europe’s fiscal disciplinarian, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Even interim Prime Minister Monti — the fiscally tough technocrat chosen by Parliament to replace Berlusconi who is seeking a full term — has recently said some of his own measures went too far while others did not go far enough, suggesting any winner here would tinker with the formula that allowed Italy to escape financial collapse last year.

Austerity “has to be made stable by combining it with growth policies,” Bersani said in his well-appointed office near Rome’s elegant Spanish Steps. He later added, President “Obama himself is asking Europeans to address this.”

For Berlusconi, only rumors

Bersani may be the front-runner, but in the crowded cafes and pizzerias of Rome, the titillating gossip of the day is still all about Berlusconi. Italy’s former modern-day Caesar this month announced his surprise engagement to a 27-year-old Neapolitan dancer, saying she makes him feel “less alone.” He is also somewhat less rich. This week, he decried the judges who awarded his ex-wife $50 million in alimony as “feminist communists.”

Berlusconi and Monti, meanwhile, have become embroiled in a bizarre, high-school-style war of words that has transfixed the nation. The Vatican has stepped in, with its semiofficial newspaper describing Monti’s political style as “higher” and “more noble” than what Italians have come to expect.

Yet, with Italians seemingly finally fed up with Berlusconi — who is facing charges of having sex with a minor — and Monti proving less apt at campaigning than many had thought, Bersani is running a double-digit lead ahead of the Feb. 24-25 vote.

Critics say the volatility of the race could raise a worrying problem. They point to the woeful track record of the Italian left in sustaining solid, long-term governments, with a host of past prime ministers quickly falling due to fatal internal divisions.

If Bersani falls short of a majority in the Senate, as some predict, he may also need to secure a political deal with Monti, but it remains uncertain how long such an alliance could last.

If Bersani wins, his “lifetime in office will be very limited,” said Giulio Tremonti, former Italian finance minister under Berlusconi. “Because of the problems with the budget and inside his coalition, you can count on an explosion inside the bunker.”

Labor market reforms

Beholden to the labor unions who backed him against Matteo Renzi, a younger, more centrist coalition rival who is mayor of Florence, Bersani is also not well-positioned to deliver major labor market reforms. But Bersani insists Italy has everything to gain from the return of the center-left after years in which Berlusconi allowed tax evasion and corruption to fester, inequality to grow and public accounts to worsen.

Major figures in Italian industry are bracing themselves for mixed results. If Bersani wins, “on the labor market, I don’t expect good things, but we can expect good things on [market] liberalization and industrial policy,” said Emma Marcegaglia, president of Confindustria, Italy’s largest industrial lobbying group.

Under former prime ministers Romano Prodi and Massimo D’Alema, Bersani spearheaded efforts to introduce competition in protected sectors including hairdressing, driving schools and cleaning companies, while also liberalizing laws that restricted, for instance, book stores from selling toys or supermarkets from selling diapers. By cracking open the market against Italian state-owned trains in the late 2000s, experts say, Bersani opened the way to more competitive pricing and better service for passengers served by the new private operator, Italo, which now employs 1,200 people.

“I understand how weird it might seem to see the Italian left open up markets,” Bersani said. “But this comes from the fact that in Italy, the right wing has no free-market tradition, tends to give more power to the state and is more heavily influenced by professional lobbies.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.