A Gay Prime Minister for Italy?
The remarkable rise of Nichi Vendola
Can a gay and green communist who cuts red tape for investors, Nichi Vendola, beat the starlet-smitten plutocrat who has been running Italy, Silvio Berlusconi?
Published: Thursday, November 11, 2010 9:28 PM CST
“It’s better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay,” Italy’s 73-year-old prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said on the day America went to the polls last week.
This tasteless attempt at humor was the billionaire politician’s dismissive response to his latest headline-making sex scandal -- a tawdry affair involving his illegal intervention with police to secure the release from jail of Karima Keyek, a 17-year-old Moroccan lap dancer popularly known as Ruby Heartstealer, who’d attended lavish carnal petting parties at the prime minister’s luxury villa, and on whom Berlusconi had showered expensive gifts, including diamonds, 7,000 Euros (almost $9,900) in cash, and a $110,000 car.
Berlusconi has admitted calling the police, explaining it was “an act of charity.” But, the prime minister’s abuse of power -- asking Milanese police to release the dancer after she was arrested for stealing 3,000 Euros ($4,200) from a friend -- involved a lie: Berlusconi told authorities she was a niece of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Berlusconi’s phone call got Ruby released into the custody of one of the prime minister’s political cronies he’d sent to collect her, but the Egyptian Foreign Ministry denied that the Moroccan girl was any relation of Mubarak’s, creating a diplomatic embarrassment.
According to respected Italian newspaper, the reason Berlusconi covered Ruby in gifts and cash and was so eager to get her out of jail was that he was afraid she’d tell what went on at his villa sex parties and confirm the already-public account of a call-girl that high-end prostitutes were paid 5,000 Euros (some $7,000) a night to participate.
Berlusconi’s former political ally of 15 years and his ex-deputy prime minister, Parliamentary Speaker Gianfranco Fini, warned that if the claims were substantiated the prime minister should step down.
“It would indicate a nonchalance, a corruption symptomatic of the use of state office for private gain,” Fini said.
A former neofascist, Fini broke with Berlusconi in August and controls a bloc of votes in Parliament big enough to bring down the government whenever he likes.
On November 7, Fini finally declared open war on Berolusconi by calling for his resignation, as many other political leaders had already done, creating a political crisis; most commentators now say that the fall of Berlusconi’s government is only a question of time.
Berlusconi, who has prevented every single bit of gay rights legislation, from anti-discrimination measures to civil unions, has never hesitated to use homophobia as a political weapon -- even against the Catholic Church. When a Catholic daily newspaper, Avvenire, began criticizing Berlusconi after the exposure of his flings with $3,000-a-night hookers and starlets two years ago, Il Giornale, the paper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo, published charges that Avvenire’s editor was a closet homosexual who had harassed the wife of his gay lover. The allegations turned out to be pure invention, but by then the editor had resigned.
Berlusconi was at his lowest point ever in the public opinion polls even before the latest scandal broke, and his coalition government is teetering on the brink of collapse after the defection of Fini, his once-closest ally. If Berlusconi’s government falls soon, that would probably trigger elections next spring, two years ahead of schedule.
Will “Rubygate,” as the Italian press is now calling the scandal, spell the end of Berlusconi?
Given Berlusconi’s gay-baiting, it’s ironic that a man emerging as one of two leading contenders in the opposition center-left coalition’s contest for who will lead its ticket against him in the next parliamentary elections is Nichi Vendola, the openly gay 51-year-old president of the region of Puglia.
And as expat journalist Judy Harris pointed out last week from Rome, Berlusconi’s latest anti-gay crack can be translated as saying to the electorate, “You may like Vendola, but he’s gay and I’m a real man.”
The 2005 election of Vendola, whose first name is pronounced “Nicky,” as president of Puglia (usually rendered as Apulia in English) surprised the nation. A well-known activist with ARCIGAY, the national lesbian and gay association, and also a leader of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party), Vendola beat the candidate of Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition in a southeastern region of 4 million people usually regarded as conservative and Catholic.
But Vendola is also a Catholic and said at the time that “the most important book for a communist is the Bible.” In 2009, Vendola founded a new national party, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, or Left Ecology Liberty), and was triumphally re-elected as regional president earlier this year with a whopping 73 percent of the vote.
Today, the charismatic Vendola tops the public opinion polls as the most popular politician in the left opposition, and has declared his candidacy to become the head of its ticket at the next parliamentary elections. In polls, he either beats the Democratic Party’s lackluster leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, or trails him narrowly.
Vendola, a powerful platform speaker, is everything the notoriously vulgar, corrupt, and reactionary Berlusconi, an ex-lounge singer who became Italy’s richest man, is not -- unconventional, anti-conformist, cultivated, lyrical. In his speeches, he says things like, “We must teach our youth the meaning of beauty!” And “Be realist, demand the impossible!” Or he tells his audiences that “the word ‘left’ means home of rights, which means turning the lights on the corners of social pain, which is to speak of the invisible, of so many people bewildered and lost!”
Vendola is a former literature student who came out at the age of 20 and did his university dissertation on Pier Paolo Pasolini, the queer poet-novelist-literary critic and filmmaker who is considered by Italians, according to the novelist Italo Calvino, to have been the most influential cultural figure of the post-World War II era. Vendola subsequently became a journalist for l’Unita, the daily newspaper of what was then the Communist Party. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian parliament, in 1992, and as a member of the Anti-Mafia Commission, became known as a leading opponent of the Mafia and organized crime.
Vendola is the only major Italian politician who wears an earring, and he’s a poet -- some of his work been collected in a volume entitled “L’ultimo mare” (“The Last Sea”). Indeed, the campaign slogan that led to his landslide re-election campaign in January was, “Poetry is in the facts.” In running his region, Vendola has been an apostle of “small is beautiful,” and has successfully encouraged the intensive development of small-scale agriculture and of a network of small and medium-sized factories, particularly in textiles, clothing, footwear, and food products.
In spite of his communist background, Vendola, an avid environmentalist, 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 because of its less cumbersome bureaucracy, streamlined by Vendola, and the relative weakness of the Mafia, known there as Sacra Corona Unita (United Sacred Crown).
On the campaign stump, Vendola has not hesitated to confront the homophobes. In one re-election speech he said, “Do you really believe that happiness is only heterosexual? Do you really think a gay cannot be happy? No, it is not, it cannot be that way. What makes you miserable are hypocrisy, secrecy, fear of being what you are. Declaring who you are may be painful, even bring exclusion, even bring violence, but I’ve never been afraid to be who I am. And if there’s a thought that gives me more anxiety than that, it is to imagine living a lie. This is misery! Just this.”
In a country where anti-immigrant sentiment has been inflamed by Berlusconi and his allies, Vendola insists, “We are compatriots with whom I feel united, but if in some parts of Italy you can imagine a natural propensity for ethnic cleansing, I do not feel united with you. If anyone purveys homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and the negative mythology about the different ingredients we have to live with, I do not feel I can join those who think that intolerance is a natural fact.”
Vendola has a ready-made nationwide base of support in the Internet network called “Nichi’s Factories” (fabbriche di Nichi), which has the Italian press baptizing him the “Italian Obama.” A first for Italian politics, Nichi’s Factories are local groups composed largely of people new to politics, especially students and other younger people, and disappointed exiles from the tepid, arteriosclerotic traditional left, who moblize and stay in touch with each other through Facebook and other social networking sites.
Each local group, a “factory” of ideas, initiates, organizes, and spreads word of its own actions -- such as “guerilla gardening,” through which members clean and replant public parks, an effort begun in Bari that spread across the country. Nichi’s Factories also sponsor tupperware parties, friendly gatherings with food that bring together supporters of Vendola and those they hope to recruit. In Florence, Vendola’s supporters set up workshops to make their own dishwashing liquid from natural products as a way of sensitizing people to the environmental dangers in nonbiodegradable products.
The list of actions by Nichi’s Factories is long and innovative. The groups also generate campaign ideas -- for slogans, posters, videos, and other materials -- which filter up to the top and are adopted nationally. More than 10,000 people were organized into Nichi’s factories this past summer alone, in over 420 ciies and towns, with more volunteers joining and organizing local factories every day.
This grassroots phenomenon gives Vendola an important leg up in his national candidacy.
“The factories, built by volunteers, are examples of participatory democracy and political reform. They’re not just simple electoral committees,” said Vendola, “but a different sort of space, active and creative. Ideas, propositions, actions of all kind are born there and then distributed in every region, via Internet and by the grassroots actions and projects on the ground.”
Even if Vendola wins the primary contest to become the center-left’s leader, can he score a general election victory?
Homophobia is still alive and well in Catholic Italy, where attitudes are less tolerant than in many other Western European countries. A recent poll found that only 51 percent of the population believed that homosexual love should be regarded as equal to heterosexual love, while 35 percent believed that homosexuality should be tolerated as long as it’s not ostentatious and 9 percent defined it as immoral.
Nonetheless, Vendola does have admirers among the establishment.
In April, former center-left Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema said, “Nichi Vendola is the only one able to revive the idea of a modern left. The others seem too disoriented.”
And one commentator who believes that the clear contrast between Vendola and Berlusconi could turn the growing public disgust with the prime minister and the status quo into an enormous electoral strength for Puglia’s president is Curzio Maltese, a columnist for the country’s most respected daily, La Repubblica. Maltese, who last year authored a book on Berlusconi entitled “La Bolla” (“The Bubble”), pointing to Vendola’s strength in public opinion polls, said, “He has brought a sense of liberation -- the idea of having a declared homosexual as prime minister!”
“We could be at the dawn of a huge rebellion,” Maltese added.