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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 11:18 PM

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.

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