Describing his main challenger, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) leader Walter Veltroni, Silvio Berlusconi recently opted for his favourite sobriquet of "recycled communist." Veltroni was indeed a member of the Italian Communist Party, though he played a leading role in its transformation into a social-democratic party during the 1990s.
To many Italians the former mayor of Rome sounds more like a philosophy professor than a politician. Soft-spoken, he is fond of talking about American pop culture, art or even love during his speeches. His numerous publications include books on Robert Kennedy, football and music. He also wrote the preface to the Italian edition of Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope". Indeed, he has borrowed the Illinois senator's campaign slogan, "Yes we can," in his bid to achieve the unthinkable: overturning Berlusconi's massive lead ahead of Italy's general election.
In many ways, the former mayor of Rome is the most formidable opponent Berlusconi has ever faced. Unlike Romano Prodi, Veltroni knows how to handle the media, coming across as an eloquent, polite and benevolent person. For some critics, this Blair-like appearance conceals a lack of efficiency when it comes to dealing with the real issues, such as crime and urban degradation in Rome.
Still, "Veltroni comes across today as a very popular mayor, having managed to create a positive image for his city and for himself," explains Marco Pratellesi of Italy's most respected daily Il Corriere della Sera, in an interview with FRANCE 24. A full twenty years younger than his72-year-old rival, the centre-left candidate is also advantaged by his relatively young age. As Pratellesi points out, "this sets him on a par with current European leaders, and distinguishes him from Italy's gerontocracy."
Long known as Italy's "Mr Nice," Veltroni has toughened up for the campaign. In a country where electoral contests are a highly personal matter, the PD candidate hasn't backed down from confrontation. He has repeatedly taunted his rival for refusing to take part in a televised debate. More provoking still, he has called on Berlusconi to publicly state his loyalty to the Italian Republic and the constitution, while also urging him to reject the mafia vote.
A new era for Italian politics?
Walter Veltroni was elected leader of the newly founded Democratic Party in October 2007, after winning a US-style primary with over 75% of the vote. The PD's policy priorities include addressing job insecurity, a stagnant economy, institutional reform and the environment. Yet in a campaign where "the methods put forward have prevailed over the contents of policies," as Pratellesi explains, Veltroni's party caused the biggest surprise by announcing it would stand alone, thereby breaking its ties with the multitude of Green, Communist and centrist parties that made up previous coalitions.
Back footed by a centre-left party promising a new era of stability in Italian politics, Berlusconi suddenly abandoned plans to create yet another mega-coalition, opting instead to take up the challenge by creating his own ad-hoc single party. However, the initiative was in Veltroni's camp.
Veltroni has been at pains to avoid all association with Romano Prodi's ill-fated government. He has portrayed his move to reject a coalition government as the answer to the "chains of failed decisions" that stifle Italy's potential and led to the Naples and Alitalia crises. Designed to appeal to voters dissatisfied with the current political class and system, his campaign has been all about "change." Yet, as critics point out, Veltroni has been in politics for longer than Berlusconi, and also served as Prodi's deputy in the first centre-left government elected in 1996.
Nonetheless, Veltroni's move appears to have struck a chord with a disillusioned electorate, as widely fluctuating opinion polls suggested the gap between the two leaders narrowed during the two-month campaign. "The fact that he actually took a bold decision, attempting to simplify the country's political system, has sent a strong message to voters," explains Marco Pratellesi. Whether it will be enough to overturn the massive 8-point deficit at the start of the campaign remains to be seen. "While he has come across as a credible candidate, both calm and passionate, and with good ideas," La Repubblica's Natalia Aspesi told FRANCE 24, "there simply hasn't been enough time to truly appreciate him."