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From the Associated Press





UP

Italy's Left Looks Beyond Prodi


Wednesday June 27, 2007 8:16 PM

AP Photo TUR121, TUR116

By ALESSANDRA RIZZO

Associated Press Writer

ROME (AP) - Looking beyond troubled Premier Romano Prodi, the Italian left is gambling that a mayor who loves the Kennedys, writes novels and campaigns to end poverty in Africa is the right man to boost its fortunes.

Walter Veltroni, the popular mayor of Rome, has rallied the support of a majority of center-left leaders who see him as the unifying figure needed to reconcile bickering allies and reverse their coalition's decline since its election victory last year.

On Wednesday, Veltroni made the first step toward taking control of the coalition when he announced what is expected to be a successful bid for the leadership of the new Democratic Party, to be formed in the fall by merging the two largest formations in the center-left bloc.

From there, he can effectively replace Prodi at the helm of the coalition and be the natural candidate for premier at a future election.

Presenting his candidacy to lead the Democrats at a rally in Turin, Veltroni said the new party should work to defend the environment, reform Italy's social and tax system and improve youths' education and employment prospects.

He also pledged to improve the political atmosphere, marked by bitter confrontations between left and right, as well as serious infighting within the two coalitions.

``We need to stop the angry conflicts and the poison,'' he said. ``The country is asking us this because it can't stand it anymore.''

Prodi announced in April he would not run for office again when his term ends in 2011, asserting the country needs ``new leaders.''

The rise of Veltroni, who turns 52 next week, marks a changing of the guard in the Italian left, and is likely to spur change in the conservative bloc led by Silvio Berlusconi. Though not terribly young by European standards - Tony Blair quit after 10 years as British prime minister at 54 - Veltroni is still viewed as a fresh face in a country where the combined age of the two candidates battling for the premiership last year was 135.

But he is no newcomer.

Veltroni was deputy premier and culture minister in the first Prodi government over a decade ago, served as leader of the Democrats of the Left - heirs to the Communist Party - for about three years in the late 1990s and has been mayor of Italy's capital and largest city since 2001.

Veltroni's appeal lies in his moderate stances and do-gooder attitude that has occasionally drawn sarcasm among Italy's venomous politicians. His passions for soccer, cinema and the arts are very much part of his public persona.

Often quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, he modeled a recent speech on Rudyard Kipling's poem ``If.'' He loves pop-culture icons like the Beatles and film directors like Bernardo Bertolucci.

His fascination with the Kennedy family led to a book called ``The Broken Dream.'' He has also written political essays, a book chronicling a trip among Africa's needy, movie reviews and a successful novel published last year.

As mayor, Veltroni has raised Rome's cultural profile with concerts, exhibits and a film festival that was inaugurated last year. The tourist flow has increased, with some 2 million visiting Rome in May alone, up 8.7 percent from the same month in 2006, according to his office.

But critics say he overlooked the city's chronic problems such as traffic and garbage at the expense of media-friendly, self-promoting events; a campaign launched with fanfare years ago to clean the city's downtown buildings from graffiti produced little apparent result.

What sets Veltroni apart in Italy's squabbling political scene is his ability to generate consensus.

So far he has been able to reconcile the extreme left with moderates - a feat that is proving hard for Prodi and which is at the source of many of the government's problems. Veltroni is also generally viewed favorably by Catholics, and as mayor of the city that hosts the pope, he does not shy away from the occasional Vatican ceremony.

Not being associated with a government whose approval ratings keep falling has also contributed to Veltroni's rise. His candidacy is seen as boosting votes for the Democratic Party, projected now at 23 percent to 25 percent of the vote, by as much as 10 percent, according to a survey in the Corriere della Sera daily.


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