The handsome Pleaser challenges Berlusconi

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rome's stylish mayor, Francesco Rutelli, has emerged as a serious challenger to Silvio Berlusconi in the Italian general elections next year. His credibility as a national leader has been endorsed by an opinion poll showing that, with Mr Rutelli in charge, the ailing centre-left coalition could stave off defeat and might even win.

Rome's stylish mayor, Francesco Rutelli, has emerged as a serious challenger to Silvio Berlusconi in the Italian general elections next year. His credibility as a national leader has been endorsed by an opinion poll showing that, with Mr Rutelli in charge, the ailing centre-left coalition could stave off defeat and might even win.

In a survey of 500 adults, commissioned by the weekly L'Espresso, media magnate Mr Berlusconi and Mr Rutelli each received 34 per cent of the potential votes.

Until now, the duel between Mr Rutelli and the prime minister, Giuliano Amato, has been played down by the Olive Tree coalition, which fears a divisive leadership tussle. When he took on the job in April, Mr Amato made it clear he did not want to be just a stop-gap.

The two men's personal styles could not be more different. Mr Amato, 63, is a professor down to his glasses, highly competent but short on charisma and with the flaw of having been the late Bettino Craxi's righthand man. Mr Rutelli, 47, is handsome, ambitious, a former Radical, now a member of the Greens. In 1993 he beat the experienced right-wing leader, Gianfranco Fini, in the mayoral race for Rome.

One of Mr Rutelli's main tasks will be to prevent the fragmentation and bickering that has dogged the centre-left coalition. While Mr Berlusconi's coalition contains just three main forces (Forza Italia, the hard-right Alleanza Nazionale and the secessionist Northern League), the centre-left has no fewer than eight, ranging from ex-Christian Democrats to unreformed Communists.

"I hope we can arrive at a situation with two, at most three, groupings, not all these parties and symbols," said a pragmatic Mr Rutelli, from his mayoral office overlooking the Forum. But he is adamant that the coalition must increase its appeal to moderate voters. "To win we need to pull together all the centre because these forces have to compete with Forza Italia (Mr Berlusconi's party) and they need to take six or seven per cent of their voters, otherwise we'll lose."

A political commentator of La Repubblica newspaper, Sebastiano Messina, said: "The centre-left has burnt three of its best men in recent years, Prodi, D'Alema and Amato, and now desperately needs someone who can give voters some hope, some idea that things can change for the better."

That Mr Berlusconi is rattled by the prospect of a telegenic competitor, who appeals to women, the young, to women and moderate voters, is all too apparent. The media tycoon last week threatened that if Mr Rutelli were to run, damaging details would emerge about his management of Rome.

"I think Rutelli has two invaluable assets, considering that Berlusconi wants to present himself as a defender of freedom against the evils of Communism and as the new against the old," said Paolo Gentiloni, Mr Rutelli's former press spokesman. "Rutelli has never been a Communist and is 25 years younger than Berlusconi."

Barbara Palombelli, Mr Rutelli's wife, is an attractive high-profile journalist, in the Hillary-Cherie mould, and the couple have two teenage sons, one adopted. Mr Rutelli has a variety of nicknames but the one that has stuck is Er Piacone, Roman for "The Pleaser", a reference to his good looks and charm.

Left-wingers accuse Mr Rutelli of kowtowing to the Vatican and criticise his management of the recent Gay Pride march in Rome, where he withdrew council sponsorship. To those who say he is long on spin and a bit short on substance, he points to his two terms as mayor. Even his critics admit that the Jubilee Year has not been a fiasco like Italia '90, and that the city will have something to show for it once the pilgrims go home.

While he protests that it is too early to talk about programmes, Mr Rutelli has already advocated something new for Italy: unemployment benefit. "Incentives for job creation in Italy have not worked despite spending billions of lire. My goal would be to offer a minimum salary, a social wage, and to work with industry to create new jobs. Learning from the British experience, people who turned down jobs would lose their entitlement," he declared.

In his Blairite belief in the new, Mr Rutelli wants to see the internet put to the service of society. "It is a personal tool for information and entertainment, but we must use it better in health, traffic, urban management, education and security," he said.

Around the same time as Mr Amato was urging the other world leaders in New York to reform the United Nations, Mr Rutelli was facing the crowds at the national Festa dell'Unità, the ex-Communist political meeting cum trade fair. The warmth of the welcome he received left little doubt that, though no official decision will be taken before October, Er Piacone has the edge.

Comments