A “new force” with a “new language”
“But what his country really needs in its next prime minister is somebody bold enough to open its fusty economy to greater competition. Little in Mr Veltroni’s record suggests that he is the man for that job.”
Oct 18th 2007 | ROME
From The Economist print edition
The mayor of Rome becomes the centre-left’s heir-apparent
ASKED once about his religious convictions, Walter Veltroni is said to have replied: “I believe that I don’t believe”. The 52-year-old mayor of Rome has many qualities, but stubborn commitment is not among them. On October 14th he won a huge majority in the primary for the leadership of Italy’s new Democratic Party. A convention will soon formalise the merger of the ex-communist Left Democrats with Democracy and Freedom (Margherita), made up mainly of former Christian Democrats, to form the new party. Between them, the two groups took 30% of the vote in the April 2006 general election. Anyone willing to pay a euro could take part in the primaries and, the organisers say, 3.5m Italians did. Mr Veltroni won 76% of the vote; his closest rival won 13%.
Neither party put up a heavyweight rival, a recognition that Mr Veltroni is well-suited to the job. A professed admirer of America’s Democratic Party, and particularly of John Kennedy, he was the first centre-left leader to press for a broader movement in the 1990s. He has since stayed on the right-most tip of the Left Democrats. His election now makes him heir-apparent to the prime minister, Romano Prodi, and the centre-left’s most likely leader at the next election. He has proven electoral appeal. In 2006, when he ran for a second term as Rome’s mayor, he boosted his vote from 53% to 61%. His is also an unusually young face in a country of ageing leaders. He favours forward-looking rhetoric: his campaign promised a “new season” and at his victory press conference he promised that the Democratic Party would be a “new force” with a “new language”.
Perhaps. But it is also heir to movements that have been around since the birth of the republic in the 1940s. Mr Veltroni has been at the heart of Italy’s political machinery for over 30 years (he was elected a Communist councillor in Rome at the age of 21). He later joined the national parliament and first entered government (as deputy prime minister in Mr Prodi’s first government) at 40. For four years, he edited the official newspaper of the Communists’ successor party. The experience gave him media antennae as sensitive as any Italian politician’s. His whole life has been tied up with the media and arts. An avid movie fan, his most eye-catching achievement as Rome’s mayor was to launch the city’s film festival. He has written over a dozen books, including a novel. He is knowledgeable about jazz. A film based on his life of a Sicilian pianist was showing in cinemas this week.
The commonest criticism of Mr Veltroni’s performance in Rome is that he sacrifices content for image. Gianni Alemanno, the contender he crushed last year, says that “he has not resolved any of the true, fundamental problems of the city: transport, urban planning, housing, even waste disposal.” His admirers dispute this. But few would disagree that Mr Veltroni’s leadership has been characterised by conciliation, compromise and old-fashioned Italian deal-cutting.
A competition authority investigation that ended in July highlighted how the Rome council under Mr Veltroni fixed a tender offer for a big public-transport contract to eliminate competition. The only bidder was the existing franchise-holder. When the central government urged local authorities to liberalise taxi licences and Rome’s cab drivers staged illegal and violent protests, Mr Veltroni handled them with kid gloves. He has raised the number of licences, but not by much.
For the formidable task of pulling together Italy’s heterogeneous centre-left, Walter Veltroni is an excellent choice. But what his country really needs in its next prime minister is somebody bold enough to open its fusty economy to greater competition. Little in Mr Veltroni’s record suggests that he is the man for that job.