By Catherine Hornby
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's centre-left rivals Pier Luigi Bersani and Matteo Renzi went head-to-head in a final television debate on Wednesday before a runoff vote to choose who will stand in next year's election as candidate to succeed Prime Minister Mario Monti.
In a calm discussion with few moments of tension, the candidates reaffirmed plans to continue the budget discipline and economic policy agenda of Monti's government while also ensuring fairness in society and protection for workers.
"With regards to Monti, I think we all feel we have to go a little beyond this experience, without renouncing discipline or credibility ... but also striving for a bit more fairness and more work," Bersani said.
Renzi defended the pension reform carried about by Monti's government, saying that the hike in the retirement age had been a crucial step to ensure a better future for Italy's younger generations. Bersani said there was room to improve the reform to ensure vulnerable people were protected.
Bersani, the 61-year-old leader of the Democratic Party (PD) Italy's largest centre-left force, will face Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence, in a runoff vote on December 2 after Sunday's first round of the centre-left primary ended with no candidate gaining an absolute majority.
The outcome of the second round will remove one major element of uncertainty dogging Italian politics ahead of spring elections to choose a successor to Monti's government, which took over from Silvio Berlusconi when he stepped down as prime minister about a year ago.
According to an instant online poll conducted after the debate by the Quorum Institute for La Stampa daily, Renzi was judged more convincing by 49 percent of 1,900 viewers, ahead of Bersani's 38 percent.
About 15 percent of those polled said the debate might lead them to change their mind on who to vote for.
PRUDENCE VERSUS COURAGE
Renzi has presented himself as a modernizer ready to shake up Italy's ossified political establishment if he is elected, but career politician Bersani is favored among traditional PD party supporters who helped him secure the most votes in the first round.
"We're a bit like the prudent uncle versus the courageous son," Renzi said in his closing remarks. He said that Italy needed a change and new leaders to pull itself out of a deep recession, while Bersani argued that the country needs his experience.
The centre-left alliance is well ahead in opinion polls for the election, although uncertainty over possible changes to the electoral system makes it unclear whether the centre-left will be able to form a government without seeking allies from centrist parties.
Monti has said he will not run in the next election, expected in March, because it would destabilize the right-left coalition that now supports him, though he has left open the possibility of staying on if there is no outright winner.
While the PD has supported Monti's government in parliament, neither Bersani nor Renzi think he should return as prime minister after the vote.
Berlusconi said on Monday he is waiting to see who the centre-left chooses as their candidate before deciding whether he will run for the office. A poll showed last week that Renzi would be a tougher rival for Berlusconi.
The 76-year-old billionaire's comments have deepened chaos in his centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party, which had been planning to hold a primary of its own on December 16 but does not know whether it can go ahead with the vote because of his indecision.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)