After Silvio Berlusconi, Nichi Vendola?

After Silvio Berlusconi, Nichi Vendola?

After Silvio Berlusconi, Nichi Vendola?

Can an openly left-wing, openly gay politician from the South revive an Italy in deep malaise?


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.

* * *

There Is a Better Italy, published in January and written with a network of grassroots groups known as Le Fabbriche di Nichi (“Nichi’s Factories” or “Workshops”), spells out Vendola’s program for Italy. Brimming with citations (Martin Luther King Jr., Tolstoy, Maria Montessori, Shakespeare, Anna Politkovskaya, Groucho Marx) and bubbling with ideas, it is a testament to popular participation in the Factories as much as a honed political platform. Among the interesting proposals: instead of using GDP or any “index of happiness” as a measure of economic progress, that measure ought to include indexes of “competition, social cohesion and environmental health.” Growth that leads to extremes of wealth and poverty should by definition be considered negative. Vendola believes our models of sustainable development are still too anthropocentric and that a “biocentric” vision is needed to focus on species interdependence. He proudly defends income redistribution and urges a 0.05 percent tax on financial transactions. Italy must combat its rampant tax evasion, yes, he says, but without punishing productive enterprises. The tax system should reward “work, production and hiring.”

Vendola would also like to revive Alinsky-style community organizing to give the poorest Italians a voice. He insists that gender parity in government is achievable, just as he has achieved it in the Puglia regional cabinet. He’d like to see a new Ministry of Creative Production to promote art-, culture- and knowledge-based activities. Guerrilla gardening, water as a public good, integrating immigrants, rewards for talent and merit: compared with the dreary reality of Berlusconi’s Italy, it sounds utopian. But these days a glimpse of utopia seems to appeal to many Italians, especially the young. And Vendola is very adept at keeping in touch with young Italians on the web, Facebook and Twitter.

Among the welter of websites where his ideas are being discussed, I found one angry blog attacking Vendola as softhearted and fuzzy-minded. A reader calling himself Claudio Libero posted this rebuttal: “Yes, Vendola is the kind of guy who puts poetry and soul even into his shopping list. He’s a bit of everything and then some: Communist but also Catholic; left-wing but moderate; revolutionary, but also somewhat conservative; he likes the Beatles and he likes the Rolling Stones. But in the desolate landscape of the left in this crummy little country we have become, he is a pearl lighting up our way.”

When he needs to, Vendola can be quite incisive. Interviewed on a recent evening on RAI, the public TV news channel, he reacted to Berlusconi’s attempt to seize back the agenda after the sex scandal by promising major new economic measures. The prime minister is finished, said Vendola. Berlusconi has proved he has no useful ideas for Italy’s economic future.

“The scandal here isn’t Ruby,” said Vendola. (“Ruby,” Karima el-Mahroug, is the young Moroccan nightclub dancer who figures in the latest charges against Berlusconi—abuse of office and paying for sex with a minor.) “It’s a whole younger generation who have no future before them. It’s the idea that an entire generation should prostitute itself. The problem is not just that we are ruled by a pornocracy…it is not merely the impoverishment of our ideas and expectations; it’s the government’s disastrous economic and social policies.” Asked why the opposition seems unable to get that point across, Vendola said, “We need to recharge the batteries of the center-left. I believe that grassroots participation is the way to charge those batteries.”

And so while the PD ties itself in knots about whether to put gay civil unions on its platform, and while Berlusconi—as his sex parties with multiple young women come to light in judicial investigations—lamely jokes that at least he’s not gay, Vendola is gathering consensus as leader of the opposition. The left establishment thinks Italy is not ready for a candidate who wears an earring and speaks openly about his partner (an Italian-Canadian), but the voters seem to be way ahead of them. The old Italian Communist Party was always notoriously conservative when it came to social change, fearful of backing divorce and abortion. Vendola twice beat out the PD candidate in primaries and went on to win election as governor of Puglia. In recent primary elections to choose the opposition candidates for mayor of Milan and Cagliari, the SEL candidate beat out candidates from the PD. So it’s not impossible that Vendola could win a national primary to become opposition leader. It won’t happen right away, though: as Berlusconi’s rule degenerates, the situation is so tense that primaries are nobody’s priority this spring.

But Vendola’s popularity is certainly a product of the PD’s doldrums. Created to join progressive Catholic and former Communist voters for the broadest possible base, the PD elected former Communist Pierluigi Bersani, a seasoned progressive and effective critic of Berlusconi, as its leader in 2009. Perhaps it is not his fault, but Bersani has not been able to forge a strong program and message while his party is mired in infighting. At 59, he’s fifteen years younger than Berlusconi, but he speaks a very different language from the 30- and 40-year-olds trying so painfully to emerge. Nor does he belong to that other neglected—and angry—demographic, women. The PD can count two very authoritative women who might have been excellent alternatives for party secretary: Rosy Bindi, a left-wing Catholic and thorn in the side of Berlusconi, and Anna Finocchiaro, an ex-Communist and former Senate majority leader. (The other, smaller opposition party, Italia dei Valori, headed by the tough former prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro, is overwhelmingly focused on bringing Berlusconi to trial for crimes and misdemeanors.)

Bersani, repelled by Berlusconi’s extreme personalization of his power—the way his photo looms out of every campaign poster and his name is blazoned across the party logo—has tried to demonstrate that good politics is a collective affair, and that a party leader is merely elected, not anointed. It’s a worthy cause, but it is a hard one to press when you are desperately trying to get the attention of potential voters.

Vendola is more of a brand. A journalist from the Israeli paper Haaretz wrote that he has the good looks and charisma of “an Italian film star.” He’s not really tall, dark and handsome, though—more the ardent, honest and brave type. Not a Latin lover but a Hobbit hero from The Lord of the Rings, complete with the large, pointy ears.

But is Vendola too eccentric, too radical, too dreamy? The right dismisses him, and so do some on the center-left. There are lingering bad feelings about his leading role in the hard-left Rifondazione Comunista twenty years ago. Asked whether he thought the PCI had done wrong in divorcing itself from its Communist heritage, Vendola now says no. At a certain point, “the great dream of Communism had become a nightmare. What’s not dead is the idea of greater social justice.” But we have to move beyond the ideals of the nineteenth century, he believes. “To social rights, we must add human rights and liberties. Reviving the left is not merely something we have to do for Italy but for the entire world. A world without the left is a sad place.”

On February 13 more than a million Italians in 234 cities and towns (as well as many hundreds abroad, from New York to Brussels to Maputo) invaded the streets for Se non ora, quando?—“If not now, when?”—a demonstration to “restore Italy’s dignity.” In Rome’s Piazza del Popolo—where Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” boomed out of the amps, and a small guerrilla orchestra played the “Dies Irae” from Mozart’s Requiem—women, men and children of all ages, social classes, political inclinations and vocations (among them several women MPs allied with conservative Gianfranco Fini as well as a group of nuns) celebrated the “other Italy,” all those Italians repelled and offended by the Berlusconi equation of jobs for sex. It was a demonstration “to demand respect, so that we never have to say to ourselves, ‘We were silent, we didn’t see,’” declared Susanna Camusso, who recently became the first woman to head Italy’s large left-wing trade union federation, the CGIL. And who were the organizers of this astonishing protest? A small group of women artists and academics who had the temerity to think big. All the leaders of the opposition were in the crowd—Vendola, Bersani, Di Pietro—but this time around, they were participants, not protagonists.

Maybe Italy’s revolution will begin here.

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