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ITALY - POLITICS

Rome mayor steps down to lead left at general election

3 min

Italy's popular centre-left leader Walter Veltroni stepped down as mayor of Rome on Wednesday, as he prepares to take on media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi ahead of April's general election.

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Walter Veltroni, the head of Italy's new centre-left Democratic Party, stepped down Wednesday as the mayor of Rome ahead of national general elections in April, city hall said.

"It was a privilege for me to run Rome these seven years," Veltroni said in an emotional farewell speech, according to the Adnkronos news agency. "I gave my all."

The popular Veltroni, 52, added that Romans "are special human beings, generous and open, caring and with a great sense of humour."

The centre-left flagbearer will take on conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi in the April 13-14 vote, called after the collapse of centre-left prime minister Romano Prodi's government last month.

In a break with a long-standing tradition in Italy of forming wide-ranging coalitions to win elections, Veltroni has vowed that the Democratic Party, the largest formation on the left, will run alone in April.

A new voter survey published Wednesday by the all-news television channel Sky TG 24 gave Berlusconi's forces a diminishing but still considerable lead over Veltroni's.

The poll by the Consortium Institute found that Berlusconi's People of Freedom list made up of his Forza Italia party and the right-wing National Alliance were favoured by 11.5 percentage points over the Democratic Party.

Factoring in the smaller parties on both sides of the spectrum, the right scored 53.5 percent to 44 percent for the left.

A poll published two weeks ago showed the right with a lead of 16 percentage points over the centre-left.

Veltroni was first elected mayor of Rome in 2001, and won re-election by a landslide in 2006.

In October last year, he easily won an American-style primary to head the Democratic Party, born of the fusion of the former communist Democrats of the Left and the Catholic centrist Daisy party.

Veltroni, a one-time journalist and a cinema buff who created the RomeFilmFest in 2006, shed communist roots to become a social democrat.

Italian law prohibits the mayor of a city of more than 20,000 people from standing in legislative elections.

At the weekend Veltroni said his stint as mayor had been "seven years of wonderful work, one of the most beautiful human experiences that I've ever had."

But he also acknowledged Wednesday that "the hardest times ... kept me awake at night," notably the murder last year of an Italian naval officer's wife blamed on a Romanian immigrant from a suburban slum.

The murder prompted a controversial emergency decree under which scores of Romanians were deported on public safety grounds.

Partial municipal elections, including for Rome, will likely be held at the same time as the national polls.

Outgoing culture minister Francesco Rutelli, who was the mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001, is expected to run for the job again on the centre-left, while the right has not yet decided on a candidate.

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