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Nichi Vendola, the Italian Obama


Silvio Berlusconi’s gift for the battuta – wisecrack – has been a great help to his political career. But there are limits. He tried to bounce back from the revelation that he intervened to secure the release from prison of a 17-year old Moroccan bellydancer, “Ruby Heartstealer”, who had been at his private parties, by saying “it’s better to go crazy over beautiful girls than be gay”. This did not go over well and in no way blocked public disgust with his “bunga-bunga” lifestyle. The crack was aimed at the Italian left’s new star, Nichi Vendola.

 

Nichi Vendola is the governor of Apulia, heel of the peninsular boot, one of Italy’s poorest and most socially conservative regions. That it should elect (and re-elect) a governor with a background in the Rifondazione Comunista (RC, Communist Refoundation party) which he helped found in 1991 (1), but is also openly gay, is counterintuitive, even if Vendola is a professed Catholic. He is now one of Italy’s most popular politicians and may lead a coalition of left and centre-left parties in the national elections of 2013. He is a charismatic scrapper, and has the Italian right worried.

 

Vendola can use the battuta, too. In November he enraged the rightwing governor of prosperous, northern Lombardy by declaring it the most “mobbed-up” region in Italy. (That a southerner would criticise the north for its failure to control the ’Ndrangheta and Camorra is a novelty.) Reversing decades of anti-communist Stalin-baiting, Vendola condemns Berlusconi for embracing Vladimir Putin and the “business is business” approach to buying energy from authoritarian states like Russia and Libya. When asked if he might become the first gay prime minister, Vendola confides that there has already been one, whose identity he has sworn never to tell. He easily quotes the 19th century poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini – another gay Catholic leftist and subject of Vendola’s undergraduate thesis in literature – and also the New Testament and his former bishop, Don Tonino Bello, who in is the process of being beatified.

 

A Demos poll last November found Vendola was the best-liked politician in Italy, more popular than either leader of the largest centre-left parties, the Partito Democratico and Italia dei Valori. After his failed attempt to lead the Rifondazione Comunista, Vendola has formed a new party, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Left Ecology Freedom), of which he was unanimously voted president at its founding convention in October 2009, offering him a secure if relatively small national power base. His Fabbriche di Nichi (Nichi’s Workshops) are political and social clubs, primarily for the young, that began in Apulia but are now all over Italy, with overseas branches; they are dedicated to decentralised “horizontal relationships” of power, and to doing public good deeds. Vendola has more Facebook fans than any other politician in Europe, and he podcasts, posts blogs and tweets.

 

However, for now Vendola is governor of Apulia (population 4 million). He was first elected in 2005: after a very narrow victory in the broad leftwing coalition’s primaries – new in Italian politics – and then gained an even narrower victory against the conservative incumbent. “The centre-left didn’t want me to run, they said the left would never win with me on the ticket. Well, the left never won in Apulia anyway – until me. Which shows all along the problem was not in the demand for good politics, but in the supply.” Last March he was re-elected by comfortable margins.

 

Deep problems countrywide

 

In Apulia, Vendola has made novel reforms. The region has invested heavily in renewable energy sources and now supplies Italy with 13% of its solar energy and 24% of its wind power. (Vendola recently attended a summit on sustainable energy convened by Governor Schwarzenegger in California.) Land and properties confiscated from the Sacra Corona Unita – Apulia’s organised crime syndicate, which only started in the 1980s – are no longer put up to police auction, where the mob used to buy them back, but turned into cooperative farms, youth and cultural centres. Tourism is increasing.

 

Intractable problems remain, as elsewhere in the Mezzogiorno. The Italian south is a public health disaster zone, where illegal dumping, frequently controlled by organised crime, is complemented by the legal concentration of dirty industry and waste disposal plants. (The region has some of the highest cancer rates in western Europe.) Apulia’s change to cleaner fuel sources, and a provincial 2008 regulation limiting dioxin emissions from the steel plant in Taranto, have been welcomed by environmentalists and political leaders. The scheduled opening of two new waste incinerators has disillusioned some of his fans; he says that his office lacks the power to block the construction of private incinerators that are made to approved standards.

 

Organised crime remains a serious problem, and not only in the Mezzogiorno. The crime syndicates have metastasised profitably to the North – where the money is – and to elsewhere in Europe. Vendola, as a southern Italian and former longtime vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies’ anti-mafia commission, urges that all law enforcement efforts be complemented by social programmes that target those who might otherwise go into organised crime at its lowest levels. His well-informed prescription is not flaky, since, as has been often documented by ethnographers and sociologists, the roots of Italy’s mafia culture run deep into the soil of social and family life. Loosening organised crime’s hold on Italy (and its economy) will require not only good police work, but social transformation as well. The problem is no longer limited to the South but has gone national.

 

International and post-communist

 

Vendola’s rise has not been free of friction. He has fallen out with comedian and anti-politician Beppe Grillo, and has been accused by Marco Travaglio, Italy’s leading investigative journalist, of being “a red Berlusconi” for denouncing some anti-mafia inquiries that targeted some of his circle. (But then, even some anti-mafia activists complain of the power of zealous magistrates in a legal system where there is little separation between prosecutor and judge.)Now Vendola is an international figure supported by Italians living abroad, for whom six seats are reserved in the Senate and 12 in the Chamber of Deputies. On a visit to the US in November, Vendola met John Kerry, now head of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, with the assurance that Vendola doesn’t want Italy to pull out of Afghanistan, just out of the war in Afghanistan, to refocus on humanitarian work and peace negotiations. (This at first seems like a coherent policy, but in fact it was humanitarian NGOs that clamoured most for troop escalation.) Vendola’s position is not a departure from that of his previous party, as the Rifondazione Comunista acquiesced to Italian military participation in the occupation of Afghanistan.

 

Vendola is now the leader of a “post-communist” party, vague enough to include greens, trade unionists, anti-mafia activists, and feminists. He is likely to exploit the ambiguity of “post-ideology” and use the appeal of his pragmatic good governance and unpretentious charisma to win a broader audience. Vendola has admirers on the liberal right, including Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist and an Italy specialist, and Emma Marcegaglia, head of Italy’s main employers’ association, Confindustria. The Italian media call him l’Obama italiano– a politician whose candidacy has gone from impossible to compelling. But the differences are noteworthy: Obama made his career shuttling between wealthy philanthropic foundations, the community groups they bankroll, and academia. He was tailor-made for his local constituency in Hyde Park, Chicago, and was not the first black Democrat that Illinois sent to the US Senate. The American president seems truly to believe his campaign rhetoric about dissolving political differences into technocratic mediation – a strategy that has yielded meagre results for him and his party.

 

Vendola could not be more different. His childhood home, like so many others across Italy both Catholic and Communist, had portraits on the wall of Pope John XXIII and Yuri Gagarin. Nichi, born in 1958, joined the Communist youth group at 15 and treasures the memories of its consciousness-raising activities. After school he would read L’Unità, the PCI daily paper, to the illiterate labourers. “They loved hearing about South America, and then spotting all the places on the map. When I started travelling down there, I had read so much about all the places and their struggles it was like I had been there before. Today if you ask a 20-year old in Italy where Chile is, he won’t have any idea.”

 

Vendola is a veteran founder of important civic associations – Arcigay, one of Italy’s leading gay rights groups; Lila, an AIDS awareness group; the Rifondazione Comunista, which despite its often passive Atlanticism has been a recalcitrant defender of Italy’s social safety net. (The RC brought down the first Prodi government in 1998 by refusing to “reform” the welfare state.) Vendola still speaks disdainfully of the PCI politicians who dissolved the party in 1991 and rebooted without the C-word in their name. “I had wanted to change everything in the PCI for a long time, especially the undemocratic internal structure. But in 1991 they just wanted to throw out the baby and keep the dirty bathwater.”

 

For decades, Italy’s mass left was the largest and most vital in Europe. Throughout the first republic, the PCI (and the Christian Democrats as well) built up vital civic associations: women’s groups, youth clubs, trade unions, farmers’ associations and cultural groups. The circulation of L’Unità peaked at 240,000 in 1974. But the PCI failed to keep pace with the popular unrest and collective actions of “1968” (which in Italy, lasted from 1967 to the last great Fiat strikes of 1980). Even so, the PCI never quite sank into the senility that afflicted its French counterpart.

 

When Vendola speaks of the past 20 years as lost decades, he is referring to the extinction of a vibrant and politically sophisticated civic culture, which brought millions of people into the orbit of leftwing politics. Today, much of Italy’s elite dreams of a stable, narrow, two-party political system, each party hewing close to a centre which may or may not exist. Vendola, however, seems more committed to stirring up mass participation in politics than in “normalising” the system. He proudly points out that his re-election as governor of Apulia resulted not in the deactivation of his Fabbricche social clubs but in their invigorated growth: the plan is to develop them as an independent extra-parliamentary force without formal ties to his Left Ecology Freedom party. Asked about Obama’s decision to demobilise his campaign support network Organize for America, Vendola declares it without hesitation a big mistake.

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