He’s one of the country’s most popular politicians, net and social-networking confident, adored by the young and might lead a leftish coalition in the next general election. And he tries to keep a belief in politics alive.
By Chase Madar
Le Monde Diplomatique
Nichi Vendola is the governor of Apulia, heel of the peninsular boot, one of Italy’s poorest and most socially conservative regions. That it should elect (and re-elect) a governor with a background in the Rifondazione Comunista (RC, Communist Refoundation party) which he helped found in 1991 (1), but is also openly gay, is counterintuitive, even if Vendola is a professed Catholic. He is now one of Italy’s most popular politicians and may lead a coalition of left and centre-left parties in the national elections of 2013. He is a charismatic scrapper, and has the Italian right worried.
Vendola can use the battuta, too. In November he enraged the rightwing governor of prosperous, northern Lombardy by declaring it the most “mobbed-up” region in Italy. (That a southerner would criticise the north for its failure to control the ’Ndrangheta and Camorra is a novelty.) Reversing decades of anti-communist Stalin-baiting, Vendola condemns Berlusconi for embracing Vladimir Putin and the “business is business” approach to buying energy from authoritarian states like Russia and Libya. When asked if he might become the first gay prime minister, Vendola confides that there has already been one, whose identity he has sworn never to tell. He easily quotes the 19th century poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini – another gay Catholic leftist and subject of Vendola’s undergraduate thesis in literature – and also the New Testament and his former bishop, Don Tonino Bello, who in is the process of being beatified.
Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Left Ecology Freedom), of which he was unanimously voted president at its founding convention in October 2009, offering him a secure if relatively small national power base. His Fabbriche di Nichi (Nichi’s Workshops) are political and social clubs, primarily for the young, that began in Apulia but are now all over Italy, with overseas branches; they are dedicated to decentralised “horizontal relationships” of power, and to doing public good deeds. Vendola has more Facebook fans than any other politician in Europe, and he podcasts, posts blogs and tweets.
However, for now Vendola is governor of Apulia (population 4 million). He was first elected in 2005: after a very narrow victory in the broad leftwing coalition’s primaries – new in Italian politics – and then gained an even narrower victory against the conservative incumbent. “The centre-left didn’t want me to run, they said the left would never win with me on the ticket. Well, the left never won in Apulia anyway – until me. Which shows all along the problem was not in the demand for good politics, but in the supply.” Last March he was re-elected by comfortable margins.
Deep problems countrywide
Intractable problems remain, as elsewhere in the Mezzogiorno. The Italian south is a public health disaster zone, where illegal dumping, frequently controlled by organised crime, is complemented by the legal concentration of dirty industry and waste disposal plants. (The region has some of the highest cancer rates in western Europe.) Apulia’s change to cleaner fuel sources, and a provincial 2008 regulation limiting dioxin emissions from the steel plant in Taranto, have been welcomed by environmentalists and political leaders. The scheduled opening of two new waste incinerators has disillusioned some of his fans; he says that his office lacks the power to block the construction of private incinerators that are made to approved standards.
Organised crime remains a serious problem, and not only in the Mezzogiorno. The crime syndicates have metastasised profitably to the North – where the money is – and to elsewhere in Europe. Vendola, as a southern Italian and former longtime vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies’ anti-mafia commission, urges that all law enforcement efforts be complemented by social programmes that target those who might otherwise go into organised crime at its lowest levels. His well-informed prescription is not flaky, since, as has been often documented by ethnographers and sociologists, the roots of Italy’s mafia culture run deep into the soil of social and family life. Loosening organised crime’s hold on Italy (and its economy) will require not only good police work, but social transformation as well. The problem is no longer limited to the South but has gone national.
International and post-communist
Vendola is now the leader of a “post-communist” party, vague enough to include greens, trade unionists, anti-mafia activists, and feminists. He is likely to exploit the ambiguity of “post-ideology” and use the appeal of his pragmatic good governance and unpretentious charisma to win a broader audience. Vendola has admirers on the liberal right, including Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist and an Italy specialist, and Emma Marcegaglia, head of Italy’s main employers’ association, Confindustria. The Italian media call him l’Obama italiano – a politician whose candidacy has gone from impossible to compelling. But the differences are noteworthy: Obama made his career shuttling between wealthy philanthropic foundations, the community groups they bankroll, and academia. He was tailor-made for his local constituency in Hyde Park, Chicago, and was not the first black Democrat that Illinois sent to the US Senate. The American president seems truly to believe his campaign rhetoric about dissolving political differences into technocratic mediation – a strategy that has yielded meagre results for him and his party.
Vendola is a veteran founder of important civic associations – Arcigay, one of Italy’s leading gay rights groups; Lila, an AIDS awareness group; the Rifondazione Comunista, which despite its often passive Atlanticism has been a recalcitrant defender of Italy’s social safety net. (The RC brought down the first Prodi government in 1998 by refusing to “reform” the welfare state.) Vendola still speaks disdainfully of the PCI politicians who dissolved the party in 1991 and rebooted without the C-word in their name. “I had wanted to change everything in the PCI for a long time, especially the undemocratic internal structure. But in 1991 they just wanted to throw out the baby and keep the dirty bathwater.”
For decades, Italy’s mass left was the largest and most vital in Europe. Throughout the first republic, the PCI (and the Christian Democrats as well) built up vital civic associations: women’s groups, youth clubs, trade unions, farmers’ associations and cultural groups. The circulation of L’Unità peaked at 240,000 in 1974. But the PCI failed to keep pace with the popular unrest and collective actions of “1968” (which in Italy, lasted from 1967 to the last great Fiat strikes of 1980). Even so, the PCI never quite sank into the senility that afflicted its French counterpart.