Global economic troubles make strange bedfellows of us all. As Italians watched the historic protests erupt in Tunis and Cairo, the question for many was, Why aren’t we in the streets too? OK, Italy sits on the fortunate shore of the Mediterranean, but its economic and political prospects haven’t been this bleak in decades. Young people, a shocking 30 percent of them, are unemployed; all workers are underpaid and see little future before them. Less than half of women are in the workforce, kept out by low wages and heavy family duties. Meanwhile, they are caricatured and derided as sex objects on TV, where Silvio Berlusconi’s control is overwhelming. Corruption and cronyism are rampant. Italy has not faced such a serious political and constitutional crisis since the republic was established in 1946, the Catholic newsmagazine Famiglia Cristiana wrote recently, referring to the executive’s outright war on the judiciary. When a middle-of-the-road Catholic voice thunders like that, you have to ask, Where’s the opposition?
Why hasn’t the center-left been able to defeat Berlusconi once and for all? Getting rid of Italy’s “sultan” is of course only step one in rebuilding the country, but it is a step that the largest opposition party, the Partito Democratico (PD), has had trouble making. It’s not as if Berlusconi can count on a wildly enthusiastic electorate behind him; his government has almost nothing to show for its nearly three years in office, and his image has been tarnished, to say the least, by repeated sex and corruption scandals. Yet his adversaries seem unable to get traction—unable to agree upon and project a forceful alternative message.
Enter Nichi Vendola. The 52-year-old governor of the southern region of Puglia who was elected to a second five-year term in 2010, Vendola is an openly left-wing, openly gay politician who happens to be the most popular leader in the opposition, according to recent polls. Born in the town of Terlizzi near Bari on the Adriatic and a Communist from the age of 14, he was part of the hard-left minority, called Rifondazione Comunista, that split from the majority of the old Italian Communist Party when it abandoned the Communist title in 1991, becoming the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, today the Partito Democratico. Some in that hard-left splinter group have clung to a nostalgic Marxist-Leninism, but Vendola has moved forward. He now leads the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Left/Ecology/Liberty) party, or SEL, a group that has inherited just about all the left-of-PD vote, about 8 percent of the electorate. But he also claims Catholic roots: Vendola likes to recall that he grew up with a portrait of Pope John XXIII on his family’s wall, next to that of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The Bible, he once said, “is the most important book for a Communist like me.” A longtime member of the anti-Mafia commission while he served in the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house of Parliament, Vendola was also a founder of Arcigay, the country’s main gay and lesbian association. But his CV is odd for a professional politician. He studied literature at the University of Bari and wrote his thesis on the leftist filmmaker, poet and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini. Not only does Vendola write poetry himself, he’s an all-round free spirit. A thirty-year-old photograph of him and two buddies on a nude beach recently surfaced on page one of the Berlusconi-owned Il Giornale—a desperate and despicable attempt to suggest that Nichi is a party boy just like Silvio.
A biography on one of his websites describes the two sides of Nichi Vendola: one “playful, anarchic, childish and narcissistic. And one who is tireless, an organizer, on guard against his personal passions, earnest about his public responsibilities.”
He has certainly proved a pragmatic governor of Puglia, population 4 million, promoting renewable energy and trimming the bureaucracy that stymies small-business start-ups. (One department in which Vendola hasn’t been a success is healthcare: the man he named health commissioner had to resign in 2009 after accusations of fraud and abuse of office.) In Puglia, unlike other southern regions where the native mafias are deeply entrenched, the Sacra Corona Unita crime organization has a relatively weaker hold. In one of Vendola’s popular programs, properties confiscated from the SCU are converted into agricultural cooperatives. The region also has, along with strong Fascist roots, a proud left-wing and labor history. And perhaps because the Christian Democratic Party was not the only power that counted, as it was in Sicily, Puglia is more dynamic economically and socially. If it seems a paradox that one of Italy’s most modern and forward-looking politicians—and gay to boot—could have emerged in the “backward” south, Vendola likes to remind northerners that the mafias born in Sicily, Campania and Calabria are today thoroughly rooted in Lombardy and other northern territories.