Global Politics

The Italian Obama

Nancy Greenleese profiles Italian leftist politician Nichi Vendola. His appeal to young voters has earned him the nickname of 'Italy's Obama'.

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talian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has long been known for his lavish parties attended by showgirls. But now prosecutors say the center-right leader has gone too far. They accuse Berlusconi, 74, of prostitution with girls as young as 17.

The party could be over for Berlusconi if early elections were held. It would seem the ideal opportunity for the left to rise, and an unconventional future leader is stepping into the spotlight.

Nichi Vendola is the picture of an Italian politician ? elegant suits, a hip haircut for his salt-and-pepper locks. Then you notice the hoop earring. Vendola said it is part of who he is, an unusual mix for Italian politics.

?It's very easy with a story like mine to reduce it to stereotypes that are easy to focus on ? Communist, gay, Catholic, and a bit of a country bumpkin,? he said.

In 2005, Vendola shocked many when he won the governorship of the poor, conservative region of Puglia in the south. The poet-turned-politician has been credited with reviving the region, focusing on agriculture, the arts, and renewable energy.

He uses Twitter and Facebook to reach out to supporters ? and to bypass Berlusconi's monopoly on Italian media. Some have taken to calling him the Italian Obama.

But Roberto D'Alimonte, a political science professor at LUISS University in Rome, said that is ?far-fetched,? given that Vendola is far to the left of President ? or candidate ? Obama.

?Vendola has some of Obama's qualities, the most important being the capacity to generate enthusiasm with young people,? D'Alimonte said.

Vendola supporters run community centers around the country that are open to people of any political affiliation. The centers are called ?Nichi's Factories.?

29-year-old Ivan Errani, a volunteer at a center in Rome, teaches journalism. Errani said the classes help young people get their voices heard in a country where the young are often overlooked. He said that Vendola reverses stereotypes about Italy.

?Vendola has made us see that southern Italy can produce, even more than the north, and that it can free itself from the Mafia's stranglehold.?

One of the students, 20-year-old Matteo Morrosi, said Vendola, who is 52, is an intellectual who has energy.

?Above all, he's young,? Morrosi said. ?He's not 70 or 80 years old like all the other politicians who have been in office for years. He conceded, though, that it may be hard for some Italians to accept a gay leader.

Italy remains one of the few European countries that don't recognize same-sex partnerships. Vendola has sponsored legislation, but the Vatican still has political influence in Italy, and it opposes any gay rights bill, even one proposed by Vendola, who is a devout Catholic.

?I was raised in the Catholic church,? Vendola said. ?I can't imagine renouncing my faith since it's part of who I am. Even when the words of the Catholic hierarchy seem unjust or harsh, I think of the need to keep open a dialogue with the Church.?

Professor Roberto D'Alimonte said Vendola ?is trying very hard to create bridges with the Catholic Church.? But D'Alimonte added that the Church doesn't trust Vendola, even if he is an altar boy compared to Prime Minister Berlusconi.

?The fact that he's gay doesn't help,? D'Alimonte said. ?The fact that he's a former Communist and, in any case, leftist leader doesn't help. Between Vendola and Berlusconi, the Church will always choose Berlusconi.?
The church and Berlusconi

Granted, the Catholic Church isn't too happy with Berlusconi right now. A Vatican official recently said that the country is in a state of ?evident moral unease.?

Vendola has said that he considers the problem more widespread than simply Berlusconi and his libido. ?For me, the problem isn't Berlusconi, it's Berlusconi-ism,? Vendola said.

He defined it as a lack of concern for the public good, a hostile environment for women, and power in the hands of a few who consistently look out for their own interests.

At Vendola's party's conference in October, he preached to the converted for two hours, quoting Bible verses and Oscar Wilde with equal ease.

Benedetto della Vedova, a rightwing lawmaker, said it's clear that Vendola is a riveting speaker, but he said that what Vendola proposes is way too old-school.

?From a political point of view, Vendola is nothing but negative. His platform is very left wing in a country that needs a much more reform-minded approach,? Benedetto della Vedova said.

Vendola, however, said he believes he offers a change for Italy. And he's courting international supporters. He's visited Germany and the United States, a baptism of sort for rising Italian politicians.

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