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Puglia’s governor taunts Berlusconi

September 7, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Bari, published: September 7 2010

As a communist, Catholic and openly gay, Nichi Vendola defies easy categorisation. And as a popular governor of the large southern region of Puglia, he is a thorn in the side of Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-left opposition Democrats.

With Italy stumbling towards early elections unless Mr Berlusconi can stitch back together his fractured coalition, Mr Vendola’s role as a rallying cry for what is left of the country’s splintered communist movement could be crucial.

Equal to the 73-year-old media baron prime minister in terms of populism and charisma, the maverick of Puglia, who wears an earring and publishes poetry, wins in the oratory stakes.

“Berlusconi is a prisoner in his palace like Montezuma,” says Mr Vendola, 51, in his fascist-era offices in Bari overlooking the Adriatic. “This is a civil war in his party. It is the rift of the plastic TV remote-control party,” he says of Mr Berlusconi’s break with Gianfranco Fini, his long-time ally and former neo-fascist.

Turning his sights on the opposition Democratic party, he accuses Pierluigi Bersani, its third leader in two years, of failing to create an alternative.

“They have a deficit of ideas; out of touch with struggling workers and students. The demands for change are huge in Italy and the Democratic party is not meeting the challenge.”

Mr Vendola, who signed up as a communist at the age of 14, was first elected governor of Puglia’s 4m people in 2005. Before regional elections this spring, the Democrats tried to get him to step aside to give their candidate a better chance. Mr Vendola refused, defeated the Democrat’s choice in a primary and went on to trounce his centre-right rival.

Although not a member of the Democratic party – he is leader of a new leftwing ecology party – Mr Vendola has challenged Mr Bersani’s leadership, with one poll indicating he would win narrowly if it came to a vote.

But for the moment, Mr Vendola remains on the fringes of the national stage and is likely to stay there. His main battle is with Giulio Tremonti, finance minister and architect of the austerity package that punishes regions in deficit such as Puglia by slashing funding from Rome.

Mr Vendola calls it “social butchery” and notes that for two years, as Italy’s financial troubles deepened, the prime minister denied there was a crisis. “It did not fit the beautiful fable of Berlusconismo,” he says.

“They see taxes as a mortal sin, not an instrument of the state. To speak of a tax on financial transactions is virtually forbidden,” says Mr Vendola, citing what he calls warnings by pro-government economists that the cuts will cost 100,000 jobs and lead to renewed economic contraction.

In reply, Mr Tremonti accuses Mr Vendola of creating “another Greece” in Puglia through over-spending and waste, especially in healthcare, where several centre-left officials are under investigation for corruption.

Mr Vendola retorts that Italy’s poorer southern regions have had their share of central government funding cut to 37 per cent of the total from 43 per cent over the past decade. He says European Union money intended for development has instead been used to cover ordinary expenses.

In spite of his communist background, Mr Vendola has won over investors in the region’s growing renewable energy sector. At a recent international conference on solar power, investors named Puglia as the most attractive region in Italy’s south for its less cumbersome bureaucracy and the relative weakness of the mafia, known there as Sacra Corona Unita (United Sacred Crown).

Mr Vendola says that it is “our duty to call for a grand democratic coalition to bury the stinking corpse of the Second Republic”, which grew out of the collapse of the established parties – including the communists – in the early 1990s.

He would like to be the grave-digger. As someone who relishes portraying his enemies as communist conspirators, Mr Berlusconi would enjoy the prospect of taking him on.

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