Walter Veltroni: Italy’s man for all seasons

Geoff Andrews
3 July 2007

The press dubbed it "Veltroni day", but when the current mayor of Rome and hot favourite to lead Italy's new Democratic Party finished his ninety-minute speech in Turin on 27 June 2007 which formally announced his candidature, a new phase in Italian politics had begun. Walter Veltroni's vision of a "new Italy", based on a new "pact between generations", a rejection of the "conservatism" of left and right, and pragmatic, less adversarial politics, has given new hope to its decaying body politic. Yet, for all Veltroni's ability to press the right buttons, he has a mammoth task ahead in attempting to overhaul the most entrenched political class in Europe.

Italy's crisis in recent years, notably its inability to reform its political system or modernise its economy, has its roots in the failures of political leadership. For six years until April 2006, Italy was led by a salesman rather than a statesman. Silvio Berlusconi's populism was characterised by a disdain for conventional politicians, pluralist structures and constitutional niceties. The incumbent Prodi government, with a wafer-thin majority, has meandered from one crisis to the next, desperately trying to keep its nine-party coalition intact and, in comparison to Berlusconi, is regarded as weak and remote. Yet both leaders are part of the gerontocracy that continues to run Italy (Berlusconi is 70 and Prodi is 67), while they are surrounded by political functionaries who never seem to retire.Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), and an associate editor of Soundings

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (March 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

Veltroni is of a different generation and, in a country which is always comparing its limitations with its rivals, the hope is that as leader of the new Democratic Party (to be launched formally in autumn 2007 from a merger of the two main centre-left parties, the Democratici di Sinistra [Left Democrats / DS] and the Margherita [Daisy]) he can lead Italy back to the heart of Europe while restoring its reputation with the United States.

He is not new to politics (this is Italy after all) and was previously a deputy prime minister in the centre-left government of 1996-2001. However, it is his distinctive political language, the commitment to modernisation and a rejection of old orthodoxies that sets him apart. An admirer of John F Kennedy, he first mooted the idea of a Democratic Party over ten years ago, in response to the left's crisis of identity. Unusually amongst Italian politicians, Veltroni has an interest in the wider contribution politics makes to the common good. He is a prolific author - a collection of interviews entitled La Bella Politica (literally "the beauty of politics") is among his work - who in recent months has taken his ideas on the road, giving lectures on the virtues of politics and the importance of ethics and values; a point he kept returning to in his Turin speech. The contrast between his view on the importance of politics and that of Berlusconi could not be clearer.

During his speech, delivered on the same day that Tony Blair made way for Gordon Brown in Britain, Veltroni talked of the need to "innovate", increase economic competitiveness and create a society which rewarded merit while managing risk. He argued for lower taxes but stronger measures to eradicate tax evasion. This was all music to the ears of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the leader of the employers' federation Confindustria, who has recently been an outspoken critic of the government. According to Montezemolo, Veltroni had addressed "the problems of the country and industry and had given hope for a new season of politics with a modern political leadership". Veltroni also argued for a referendum on a new electoral system and greater efforts to challenge the growing disparity between political leaders and younger Italians.

A political bridge

As mayor of Rome, Veltroni has already provided a glimpse of his more conciliatory approach to leadership, involving political opponents in the city's cultural initiatives, opening multicultural dialogues between different communities and taking a practical approach to solving problems. He knows Italy is a divided country and that he must unite warring sides and not only in his own centre-left coalition. Significantly, his speech was delivered in the north of Italy which, following local elections in May-June 2007, is now a stranglehold of the Italian right.

Veltroni's current poll popularity makes him both the only centre-left candidate more popular than Berlusconi and a statesmanlike figure capable of appealing to a broad national consensus. However, in Italy people vote for parties and coalitions not leaders and winning governmental majorities will still depend on compromises. The Democratic Party may be new but it will be shaped to a degree by old politicians, schooled in the traditions of Christian Democracy and Italian communism.

Moreover, the issue of Veltroni's future relationship with Prodi, who intends to remain premier until 2011, is unresolved. It is too early to say whether Veltroni's Democratic Party will be able to steer clear of the divisions that have engulfed the current government and find a new course. Italy's hopes of long-term reform, however, will depend upon it.

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