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Putting the boot to Berlusconi

THE THINKER: "I don't speak easy," Nichi Vendola says. "I speak difficult." (Jason Horowitz)
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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."

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