Poll victory sets up Mayor of Rome as Italy's PM in waiting

Italy woke up yesterday with a new prime minister-in-waiting. After a primary election on Sunday in which more than three million voted, Walter Veltroni, the Mayor of Rome, is now seen as the best bet to replace Romano Prodi.

Mr Veltroni attracted 75 per cent of votes to lead the nascent Democratic Party. The idea of the party is that it should fuse the centrist majority of the former Italian Communist Party with the reformist part of the former Christian Democrats, creating a moderate force at the heart of Italy, capable of taking on the might of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

The idea, conceived by Mr Prodi four years ago, has become the holy grail of the Italian centre and, on Sunday, 3.3 million Italians voted for its new leader, many queuing patiently.

Mr Veltroni, a jazz-loving former communist who boasts of having doubled the number of tourists coming to Rome and who writes novels in his spare time, is in pole position to become Italy's next prime minister – and, as he is only 52, he could be a remarkably young one by Italian standards.

His Democratic Party joins the unruly throng of existing Italian parties – 155 of them, including two Fascist parties, 12 post-Fascist, 10 varieties of Communist and six Greens. The new party has has attracted only 300,000 members so far, but its 3.3 million endorsements on Sunday make it at a stroke one of the serious contenders.

Ezio Mauro, editor of La Repubblica, compared the genesis of the PD, as it is called, to the creation of New Labour. "This is a new party, like the New Labour that was announced by Blair at the beginning of his adventure," Mr Mauro wrote.

"The leadership is new, and represents a change of generations, the programme is new, the liturgy is new and in particular the instrument of direct participation of citizens is new."

Compared to the revolution effected by Mr Blair, with the junking of Labour's commitment to nationalisation and the steady appropriation of Thatcherite economic ideas, the novelty of Mr Veltroni's party looks cosmetic. He wants to cut the number of ministers in the cabinet but the party is far stronger on buzz words such as "liberty" and "dignity" than on anything the outside world would recognise as a new or radical idea.

But if Mr Veltroni were to succeed in his mission of blending two sides into a vote-winning formation, he could revolutionise Italian politics and put the right – a hotchpotch of parties with discordant ideas, clamped together by Mr Berlusconi's money – in the waiting room of power for many years.

Yet with its stunning first success, the party has given Mr Prodi a Gordon Brown-sized headache: as prime minister-in-waiting, Mr Veltroni will be not be happy to sit on his hands very long.

Mr Prodi, who belongs to no party, rushed to Mr Veltroni's headquarters in Rome to congratulate the new leader. "The relationship between me and Veltroni is bombproof," he gushed, but his aides were less than convinced.

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