ROME -- Pier Luigi Bersani punctuated his first day as the point man for Italy's center-left parties by vowing that he would lead the coalition to victory in next year's national elections.
"The next adventure is the government, a government of change," Mr. Bersani said Monday, hours after winning hard-fought national primaries. He defeated Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, 24 years his junior, who had campaigned on a platform of change and generational renewal.
Mr. Bersani, 61, who has been the secretary of the Democratic Party since 2009, ran as the favorite, with nearly the full support of the party apparatus and its elected officials. He easily defeated Mr. Renzi, winning nearly 61 percent of the vote.
But Mr. Renzi's message of change rang forcefully with a sizeable chunk of the center-left electorate, with over one million supporting him. He also attracted a considerable number of mostly young center-right voters whose frustrations with Italy's influential and pervasive gerontocracy obliterated party lines.
It is a message that Mr. Bersani may have heeded. Speaking to supporters on Sunday night, he said his greatest challenges were to change the center-left and to "prepare paths and spaces to give opportunities to new generations."
The highly publicized primaries -- a rarity in Italy where candidates are usually chosen by the parties -- gave voters an opportunity to get to know Mr. Bersani. He is a probable future prime minister whose party now commands 30 percent of the vote, according to a recent survey from SWG, a research institute.
"To have won like this strengthens his role within the party, and strengthens the party, reinforcing its chances of winning," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor of political science at Luiss university in Rome.
In his bid for the leadership of the center-left Mr. Renzi challenged voters to opt for a fresh start for the party, depicting Mr. Bersani as a reliable if unexciting known factor. But voters saw Mr. Bersani as a reassuring figure, an image that the cigar-chomping lawmaker from the Emilia-Romagna region has capitalized on, emphasizing his humble origins in a mountain town as the son of a mechanic who ran the town's gas station. He is married and has two daughters.
Throughout his rise within the Democratic Party he has been a unifying figure, able to hold a dialogue with its various components, which include former members of the Christian Democrats and hard-core Communists.
Though Mr. Bersani's political roots lie in Italy's once powerful Communist Party, in televised debates and interviews during the primaries he played up his Catholic upbringing. He cited a former pope as his role model and shed a tear when he described the pain he caused the town priest when he led an altar boy strike as a child.
Mr. Bersani has also been a steadfast, if at times unwilling, supporter of the technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Monti. He swept into power a year ago with bipartisan support after financial markets lost their faith in the conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi, pushing Italy to the edge of an economic and political precipice.
Mr. Bersani has promised to pursue Mr. Monti's commitments to the European Union for greater fiscal responsibility, while reviewing policies that might have hurt workers and retirees.
His platform includes increasing employment for women and young people; better access to research and development funds; lower labor costs for small and medium industries, the backbone of Italy's economy; and harsher anti-corruption laws.
Mr. Bersani has been a minister in three center-left governments, most recently as minister of economic development in 2006, when he led a series of changes aimed at opening up competition in Italy's restrictive economy.
The center-left is assured a victory in elections next spring, if only because it faces fractured competition.
Primaries for the leader of the center-right were put on hold last week after Mr. Berlusconi -- who was recently convicted of tax fraud -- hinted that he might run again in national elections at the head of a new political movement. Mr. Berlusconi's party, Peoples of Liberty, is in disarray because of infighting and several corruption scandals at a local level that have led to the imprisonment of some lawmakers.
There are other variables. A protest movement led by Beppe Grillo, an anti-establishment comic, has reached 20 percent in surveys, and fears are widespread among lawmakers that a record number of Italians could pass on voting.
Mr. Monti's political future also remains a question, though he has said he would not run with any existing party, preferring to serve his country as best he can.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.