Nichi Vendola, a gay, ex-communist governor, becomes the unlikely rival to Italy's Berlusconi

January 19, 2011

ROME - Nichi Vendola interrupted his stroll to the seat of Italian power to pose for pictures.

The governor of Apulia, a region in the heel of the Italian boot, wore a gray checked suit, purple paisley scarf and glittering black shoes strapped with Velcro. From his left ear hung a sparkling diamond hoop given to him by his partner, Ed. Around his left thumb he wore a gold band, the gift of a southern fisherman upon winning his first shock-the-establishment election. "Nichi!" yelled a woman who ran up to shake the graying 52-year-old's hand. "You speak the truth!" Farther down Rome's broad Via del Tritone, a class of high school students looked up stunned and squealed, "Ciao, Nichi!" A deeper voice shouted from across the street, "Get rid of them all, Nichi!"

Vendola, who nonchalantly assesses himself as "beloved," smiled the drowsy-eyed grin of a man who has seen all this adoration before. But this crisp December morning was different. Inside the Montecitorio palace, the lower house of Parliament and Vendola's destination, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faced a career-threatening confidence vote. Many of the frustrated Italians gathering in the surrounding squares hoped this gay, Catholic, ex-communist poet whom the media has dubbed - partly in jest and partly in earnest - "the white Obama" would take the premier's place.

Improbably, Vendola is positioned to become the next leader of Italy.

His ascent from regional governor to national phenomenon has coincided with what increasingly looks like the decline of Berlusconi. The media mogul barely survived the Dec. 14 confidence vote, and in the past few weeks he has suffered the erosion of his governing coalition and the evaporation of his cherished immunity from prosecution. This week, Italian papers published wiretapped phone conversations connected to allegations that the 74-year-old paid for sex with multiple young women, including Karima El Mahroug, a teenage nightclub dancer nicknamed "Ruby Heartstealer."

Calling for Berlusconi's resignation is a time-honored tradition of the left-leaning Italian opposition. But if his government falls, Berlusconi is unlikely to simply pack it in. Arguably the most effective campaigner in Europe, the billionaire would surely demand early elections, a prospect that makes the established left quake, but makes Vendola, the only challenger whose charisma is comparable to Berlusconi's, eager for the next step.

"We are in the delivery room," said Vendola, who has a baroque speaking style. "I see in the belly of Italy the alternative creature ready to be born. And as an obstetrician, I want to deliver it."

Vendola is an unlikely midwife.

Before forming the strangely named Left Ecology Freedom party, he spent most of his political life as a communist (Nichi, pronounced Nicky, is a nickname bestowed partly in honor of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev). His meandering, metaphorical and often inscrutable public comments and published thoughts are documented in a column in the Il Foglio newspaper whose title translates roughly to "Nichi, what the hell are you talking about?" His lisped speech is mocked, along with his sexuality, by crass Italian television comedians. The political establishment is not much more respectful.

"Vendola is a nice guy," said Francesco Rutelli, a former nominee for prime minister who lost to Berlusconi in 2001 and who, like many other left-leaning politicians, is wary of Vendola. "But anyway, he's a former communist, not a leader for the government of Italy."

An aide close to Berlusconi, granted anonymity to reflect the prime minister's thinking on the matter, said Berlusconi didn't believe that culturally Catholic Italy would ever elect a gay leader.

And yet Vendola has clearly caught Berlusconi's attention.

Late last year, when news of his involvement with Ruby Heartstealer first broke, Berlusconi acquitted himself by telling a motorcycle industry show that "it's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay."

In a two-hour interview on the morning of the December confidence vote, Vendola described his reaction to the apparent slight.

"My thoughts were split 50-50," he said in the Apulia region's sleek white offices off Piazza Barberini, adorned with ancient remnants, modern art and numerous ashtrays. "On the one hand, I thought it's the usual Berlusconi, that slimy bottom-feeder of small bourgeois culture, who tells anti-Semitic and homophobic jokes and affects a rampant masculinity to connect with what he imagines to be the Italian everyman, because he is the monstrous and extreme version of the Italian everyman."

And that was only the half of it.

"On the other hand," he said, "I thought he chose me. It's a joke aimed at an antagonist."

Throughout the interview, Vendola depicted Berlusconi as a poison that had seeped into the Italian soil and now sought to undercut his grass-roots support. Berlusconi "monitors me," said Vendola. "He studies me as a phenomenon and studies my Web sites. Every single syllable I utter is X-rayed." A few minutes later, Vendola's iPhone rang, and he ecstatically told a friend on the other line that he suspected Berlusconi's minions of planting negative stories about him in the media.

"The assassins," he said. "They are doing investigations into the little kid I argued with in elementary school."

If Berlusconi haunts Vendola's thoughts, it is because he looms large over the imaginations of all Italians. During his 16 years of dominating the Italian political scene, Berlusconi has returned from the grave, escaped certain death, grown more hair, erased wrinkles and magically fortified himself against criminal investigations. Not unreasonably, the billionaire has, for Vendola, become a national bogeyman. He is everywhere and owns everything.

"Berlusconi is simultaneously a cause and effect," Vendola said. "He is a factory of customs and behaviors, of mentality. An image machine, but also the finished product."

And in the paranormal universe that Italian politics has become, it may take a deeply unorthodox challenger such as Vendola to beat him.

In 2005, Vendola stunned the opposition establishment and then the right-leaning power structure to win election as the governor of the socially conservative Apulia. In March, he comfortably won reelection and has since sought to raise his national profile.

While Berlusconi controls a major chunk of the nation's media, Vendola has taken to the Web. On Facebook, 362,603 people and counting have "liked" his page, the longest list of any politician in Europe. He is active on Twitter and produces a steady stream of podcasts and blog posts. His "There is a Better Italy" Web portal has promoted political and social clubs known as "Nichi's Workshops" around the country. In sun-drenched Apulia, which supplies Italy with 13 percent of its solar energy and nearly a quarter of its wind power, he has earned a reputation for good government. Land confiscated from the mob is now given directly to cooperative farms and youth centers. He has seized on issues outside his jurisdiction, offering, for example, to store some of the garbage overflowing on the streets of Naples.

Vendola explains his economical approach to governing in language that is anything but.

"I don't speak easy," he said, proudly. "I speak difficult."

More often than not, those impenetrable and peripatetic sentences are in the service of furthering the folklore of Nichi Vendola. Unlike his colleagues on the left, who often mock the broad strokes of American discourse, he is an ardent subscriber to the notion of "narrative."

"Berlusconi's narrative is based on the privatization of life and politics," he said, recalling that when Berlusconi, the owner of a popular soccer team, entered public life, he did so by declaring the time had come for him to "take the field." "Our narrative must be to invade the field," Vendola said. "The politics of public property." His vision, he explained, is to emphasize "the public good, the territory, water, food, education. The lives of people!"

That sort of socialist sloganeering makes Berlusconi's base of businessmen recoil and his political advisers salivate. After years of pursuing phantom communists, Berlusconi certainly knows how to campaign against a real one.

But after more than 15 years of Berlusconi's emphasis on image, Vendola is betting that Italians are most interested in an outspoken and candid leader.

The establishment opposition can't beat Berlusconi, he argued, because it has no sense of self. "If it talked to a pregnant woman, its belly grew," said Vendola, leaning forward in his chair. "If it talked to a rabbi, its sideburns grew. If it talked to the church, it became a papist. If it talked to entrepreneurs, it became a businessman."

"In the face of fear, which is Berlusconism, it did not propose hope," he said, adding, "The difference is that Berlusconi presented himself as the embodiment of a great dream, and the left presented itself as a group of condominium board administrators."

The spell Vendola's frankness has cast over Italy's discouraged left has prompted comparisons with Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. They are observations that Vendola humbly disavows, and then less humbly amplifies.

"He crushed the prevailing realpolitik," Vendola said of Obama. "How can a black beat a white? How can an anti-establishment figure beat the Washington establishment? He was an outsider, and not many were ready to put money on the outsider."

As for himself, Vendola said, "I am for many reasons the child of a lesser god. . . . My entire political career has been unorthodox."

But there the similarities pretty much stop. For instance, as long-winded as Obama can be, it is difficult to imagine him delivering the answer Vendola proffered when asked whether Italy would, under a government led by him, maintain current troop levels in Afghanistan.

"Let me make a brief detour," Vendola began. He then talked for a bit about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, suggesting that the expansion of Europe to include Turkey and the Balkans would serve as an antidote to extremism. He blamed "our nearsightedness" but said that Europe could reverse the problem by resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, he said, had "an extremely strong link to Afghanistan." He said that Europe should defend Israel's right to security, yet at the same time be empathetic to the Palestinians right of return. "We have to stop dividing ourselves between pro-Israel or pro-Palestine," he said. "We have to become pro-peace."

When, minutes later, Vendola finally arrived in Afghanistan, he said his position depended on whether Italian paramilitary officers have trained Afghan police to keep the peace or fight the Taliban. "My prescription is this," he said: "There is no need to flee from Afghanistan; we need to flee from the war."

Vendola's idiom - part university professor, part rabble-rouser, part abstract poet - distinguishes him from the predictable rhetoric of Italian politicians. But sometimes even he has a tough time following his train of thought.

"I built myself as a populist anti-populist," he said at one point in the interview. "I'm not like the character of Samuel Beckett, who lives waiting for Godot. The left is always waiting for someone. In the end, it's the last part of the communist mentality in the left, always awaiting an unknown factor to save them, ummmm. What was I talking about?"

When Vendola abruptly stops speaking to say things like "I lost the thread," it's not always because he is confused. Sometimes it's hard to retrace the remarkably winding road that has brought him to the precipice of power.

Born in Terlizzi, a small community not far from the Apulian capital of Bari, Nicola Vendola grew up in a family of modest means. His father, one of 11 children, volunteered for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a teenager, but then, according to family lore, became a communist after reading John Steinbeck. At night his mother, one of nine children, knit and his father, by then a postman and the head of the local communist chapter, read Vendola and his three siblings Richard Wright's "Black Boy," Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" and the letters of Italian resistance fighters languishing on death row. After those bedtime stories, Vendola said, his communist father forced the children to say their prayers.

As a child, Vendola said he stood apart. He was no good at sports. And the preferred pastimes of local kids - feeding firecrackers to lizards or kicking cats - didn't sit well with him. In school, he idolized Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, and he claims that "fascist kids" beat him up for bringing their "subversive texts" to school.

At 14, he enrolled in the communist party, then a force against organized crime in the south. He read the communist papers to laborers after school, but also devoured the local literature, especially the poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini, on whose work Vendola wrote his college thesis. Besides the verse of Pasolini, himself gay, and a popular magazine's cover story about homosexuality that Vendola had stashed, at age 17, under a pile of books, there was little comfort. Growing up gay in a socially conservative stronghold of southern Italy was not easy.

"I had fear of dying," Vendola said. "I was a classic mama's boy, and suddenly I became a problem."

In a rare moment of understatement, Vendola said his parents reacted "not well" to his coming out. The breakthrough came, he said, decades later, when, in 2000, he addressed thousands of gay demonstrators at the World Pride march in Rome. After his speech, he received a call from his mother.

" 'It's a shame we are old and couldn't come. You know, your dad was saying, maybe we should ask your forgiveness,' " Vendola recalled her saying. "I don't think I ever cried like that in my life. I think I cried for a couple of days."

Vendola does not see his sexuality as an impediment to his national ambitions in the home of the Holy See, especially since the church is increasingly vocal about Berlusconi's alleged sins of the flesh. Vendola argued that, in Italy, Catholicism is more cultural than religious. When everyone is nominally Catholic, there is a lot more flexibility and acceptance.

"I have a lot of nuns among my fans," he insisted. "In Italy there are parishes that distribute my discourses."

Vendola has played an active role in Italy's largest gay advocacy group, but his interests are not restricted to identity politics. He has sought to expose the exploitation of immigrant communities by drug dealers and infiltrated a mental hospital to shine light on the poor treatment of the mentally ill. After his election to Parliament in 1992, he went on peace missions in rebel-controlled territories of Colombia and Mexico. He joined delegations to Bosnia and Tajikistan, and late last year met in California with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As he explained his global missions, Vendola's press aide looked up from his BlackBerry to note that Berlusconi had survived the confidence vote in the Senate, and that the decisive vote in the lower house of parliament would soon begin.

Was Vendola ready for his appointment with history?

"At a certain point, power touched me," Vendola said. "And I lived it like a calling. At the beginning it was almost mystical. It was a responsibility that kept me from sleeping. Why me?"

At the foot of the Via del Tritone, police erected barricades to protect the government from thousands of violent protesters who had descended upon Rome. Vendola, his press aide and body guard arrived and the police parted. As he crossed the Via del Corso, an orbiting scrum of journalists and cameramen clustered around him.

"The worst of Italy is inside that building," Vendola said outside the prime minister's palace. "And the best of Italy is outside."

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