Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi

Former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi

It’s election day in Italy and, for those of you who aren’t paying attention, the leading candidates for prime minister are an alleged philanderer, a former communist, a professor, and a comedian. O Dio mio.

Much of this unabashedly entertaining campaign is focused on two issues – Italy’s response to the European economic crisis, and whether former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (the alleged philanderer) will return to office. Energy is pretty much off the radar screens, but that doesn’t mean the candidates don’t have an interest. And whoever wins the election (voting is today and tomorrow) will take over a country that imports about 80 percent of its energy needs. In Italy, as elsewhere, energy really matters.

For a foreigner, Italian politics are difficult to parse even on the brightest of sunny days, so I asked an Italian energy expert, Laura Parmigiani, to help me poke around the candidates’ platforms. Here’s what I found especially interesting about each politician’s views on energy:

Berlusconi (also known as Il Cavaliere, “The Knight”) is an unapologetic advocate of nuclear power. Italy had abandoned nuclear energy after the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

Pier Luigi Bersani

Pier Luigi Bersani

But Berlusconi, after assuming his third prime ministership in 2008, wanted to change course. In the face of rising oil prices and greenhouse gases, his government planned to build new nuclear plants. A post-Fukushima referendum cut that short. 94 percent of voters gestured emphatically with their hands and screamed: Forget it.

Italy “probably will have to bid farewell” to nuclear power, Berlusconi said. He’s not likely to change that assessment if he becomes prime minister a fourth time. But had it not been for Fukushima, this year’s election might have been, in part, a vote on whether Italy should again embrace the atom.

Pier Luigi Bersani is a former communist turned free marketeer. As a cabinet minister in a previous government, he went after the country’s energy monopolies, advocating competition in the electricity and gas markets.

Mario Monti

Mario Monti

If he becomes prime minister, Bersani  says that natural gas will be at the center of his energy policy.

Approximately 40 percent of Italy’s energy  consumption comes from natural gas, and nearly all of it (91%) is imported, much via pipeline from Russia. “We have to see how we can manage to reduce the costs of importing,” Bersani said.

The professor is Mario Monti, a silver-haired economist who headed Italy’s caretaker government after Berlusconi, overwhelmed by scandal and the Euro-debt crisis, resigned in November, 2011. Monti has proposed a national debate – the first ever – on energy strategy.

And remember all those natural gas imports? Monti wants to reduce dependence on Russia by building a pipeline that would send gas directly to Italy from Azerbaijan.

Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

The comedian is Beppe Grillo. He is a TV personality with a barbed, populist tongue: a sort of Ralph Nader with a sense of humor. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Mark Twain.

His political rallies are high energy and very engaging. Grillo is the greenest of the candidates, with negative views on coal and a strong focus on renewables and energy efficiency.

Here’s more about Italy’s election:

Angry and Disillusioned, Italians Prepare to Vote

Italy’s anti-politician on the verge of election sensation

Thanks to Laura Parmigiani, with the Center for Energy at the Institut français des relations internationals in Brussels.