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Evviva Vendola

Evviva Vendola

George De Stefano (June 14, 2008)
Poster from Nichi Vendola's successful 2005 campaign for the Puglia presidency

Can Puglia's president revive Italy's Left?


“Italy is an amazing country,” to quote Valerio Volpi, a political scientist at the University of Bari with whom I recently began an e-mail correspondence.

Valerio offered this observation in his analysis of the anomalous position of the Catholic Church in Italy. In an essay published at the leftist political website Counterpunch, he noted that although Catholicism no longer is Italy’s state religion, it enjoys all the privileges of an official faith, including the sycophancy of politicians, and not only conservatives.

I’m borrowing Valerio’s comment to apply it in a different context: the status of homosexuals in Italy. In my most recent contribution to I-Italy, I deplored the wave of violent bigotry and the political attacks on Italian gays and lesbians that have followed the April elections that brought to power a right-wing government headed by Silvio Berlusconi.

Virulent homophobia notwithstanding, perhaps the most intriguing politician in Italy right now is a gay man: Nicola “Nichi” Vendola, a communist who is the president of the Puglia region. Amazing, no?

Vendola is the most prominent figure in Rifondazione comunista, the political party he helped found after the Partito comunista italiano (PCI) was dissolved in 1991. Unlike other former Communists who joined the left-liberal Partito democratico di sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left), Vendola and other like-minded militants remained socialists, albeit non-Leninists. Rifondazione was to be a mass party of the radical Left rather than a revolutionary, “vanguard” one.

In 2005, voters in Puglia, one of the largest southern territories, chose Vendola as their president, a position comparable to a governor in the United States. Vendola, then 48, defeated the incumbent president Raffaele Fitto, a member of the Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

The son of Communists from Terlizzi, in Puglia, Vendola became a PCI activist when he was thirteen. At eighteen, he came out to his family and to the Party. He has said that although the Communists sometimes were discomfited by the publicity his prominence attracted, they nonetheless fully supported his work. He joined and later became a leader of Arci Gay, the national gay rights organization that began as an offshoot of the PCI.

But Vendola did not make gay issues central to his campaign for the Puglia presidency. He in fact has never been a practitioner of identity politics, choosing instead to situate gay concerns within a broader leftist agenda for social change. During the race he portrayed himself as a candidate both radical and traditional, an outspoken communist who was also a good Catholic son, “un figlio di mamma.” His mother even made some campaign appearances with him.

Unlike Democrats in America who cower when conservatives call them “liberal,” Vendola embraced the barbs of his critics and turned them to his advantage. He issued a series of ads in which he agreed that he's "dangerous ... like all honest persons"; "extremist ... in my love for Puglia"; and "subversive ... because I have always put first those who are last."

After the 2005 election, Vendola told La Repubblica that his victory demonstrated that "the ruling classes are increasingly out of touch with the people." The results validated a "different idea of politics, one founded on human rapport, the primacy of the people, the capacity to connect politics to life."

Vendola's statements often reveal a philosophical bent. In fact, when he moved from Terlizzi to Rome in 1984, he already had a doctorate in philosophy and had published a book of poems entitled Before the Battle.

His first electoral victory was in 1987, when he ran for a seat in the Italian parliament as a Communist, and won, becoming Italy's first openly gay legislator. He was repeatedly re-elected by Puglia's voters, and during his eighteen-year tenure he distinguished himself as an environmentalist, an organized crime fighter (he co-chaired the parliament's anti-Mafia commission), and an advocate for the rights of gays, women, the disabled, immigrants, and the mentally ill.

No Time for Depression

After the total electoral rout of the Left in April 2008, Rifondazione no longer had any seats in parliament.  What’s little known outside Italian leftist circles, however, is that Rifondazione had considered choosing Vendola as its candidate for president of the council, or prime minister. He wasn’t chosen for several quite compelling reasons, which Valerio Volpi explained to me.

First, the leading wing of Rifondazione regards Vendola “as the main resource for the future of the Italian Left and for the continuation of the unitary project” known as Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left), which aims to unite all of Italy’s radical leftist parties.

“As the Left faced a severe reduction in votes due to both its participation to the Prodi government and to the ‘useful vote’ mantra, Vendola might have spoiled his future chances as leader of a single party of the Left and even as the leader of Rifondazione,” Valerio commented.

Besides, Vendola has been a successful regional president. To become prime minister, he would have had to run for Parliament. If elected, he would have had to choose between remaining Puglia’s president and becoming an MP, as the two offices are incompatible. Upon his resignation from the presidency, the Puglia assembly would have been dissolved (regional assemblies are automatically dissolved when the president resigns), and new elections would have been held. “That could have meant risking the loss of Puglia to the Right,” Valerio said.  

 Rifondazione will choose its next leader at its party convention in July. If Vendola is selected, as seems likely – his rival is Paolo Ferrero, a former minister in Romano Prodi’s center-left government – the Sinistra Arcobaleno project to unite all leftist parties will remain alive.

In the meantime, Vendola has been out on the hustings, meeting with “Rifo” supporters and appearing at party events. He’s not only trying to bolster his chances to lead his party but also to raise the spirits of a stunned and demoralized Left.

At a festival in Prà held in early June, he stated, “This cannot be a time of depression. We cannot be prisoners of anguish and fear.” It must also be, he admonished, “a time of reconstruction.”  

A few weeks earlier, while in Rome, Vendola offered some criticism of the Sinistra Arcobaleno but nonetheless stressed the importance of a unitary Left project. As for his own party’s future, Rifondazione must not deny its own communist identity, he said, but at the same time it must not become “a subcultural caricature of the old [Communist] International.”

He even left open the possibility of an opening to Walter Veltroni’s Democrats, but only if the party “shifts the axis of its politics from its current neocentrist drift to the left.”

That may be a tall order, given that the Democrats’ proposed economic policies were so similar to Berlusconi’s that some critics referred to its leader as “Veltrusconi.” During the electoral campaign Berlusconi even jokingly suggested the Democratic leader join him and his rightist coalition.

Whether Nichi Vendola achieves his goal of becoming the leader of the radical Left and helps revive its fortunes remains to be seen. But Vendola, who arrived in Rome some twenty-five years ago from the poor and often denigrated South, armed with poetry and militancy, already has achieved things of which radicals elsewhere only dream.   

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