Unhappy Italy finds a hero in Professor Prodi

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The Independent Online
It sounds an unlikely scenario: a quiet university professor with no direct role in politics suddenly announcing he will fight the next general election with a view to becoming prime minister. This professor has no party machine, no formal alliances sewn up with backers and no programme other than some vague ideological orientations.

A bit of a non-starter, you might think. Not so in Italy, where Romano Prodi - economics professor in Bologna, former head of the IRI state industrial mammoth and a committed Catholic slightly to the left of centre - is being feted like a national hero after announcing his entry into politics.

Mr Prodi unveiled his plans this weekend to challenge Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing Freedom Alliance at the parliamentary elections which could come any time after June. The idea was to head the broadest possible centre-left coalition that would promise solid reform rather than the endless power-broking that has led Italy to stagnation and political paralysis.

One might have thought the established centre-left leaders would bristle at this intrusion. Instead, Mr Prodi was greeted enthusiastically by almost everyone. Even Massimo D'Alema, who as head of the left-wing PDS is the natural leader of the opposition,endorsed Mr Prodi as a man who could help break the ideological link between his party and its Communist heritage.

Even the abrasive Mr Berlusconi cheered Mr Prodi's initiative, and his Giornale newspaper called the professor "a true gentleman" - proof that the conservative camp acknowledges his stature.

How has Mr Prodi pulled it off? Newspaper leader-writers have been busy quoting Brecht's line: "Unhappy the land that needs heroes". Italians have always had a weakness for providential figures in times of crisis - witness Mr Berlusconi's irresistible rise to power last year. The reception accorded to Mr Prodi is surely a sign of the desperation of the left wing as they cast around for an "anti-Berlusconi" to bring them power. Mr Prodi is one of the few national figures whose competence goes unquestioned. Although associated with the Christian Democrats, who gave him the job at IRI in the 1980s, he has remained free of the scourge of Italian party politics. Rather like Jacques Delors in France, he is an ideas man first and politician only second.

Admittedly, the 55-year-old Mr Prodi is a Messiah whose coming has been well prophesied. His name was being bandied around in 1993 as a stop-gap prime minister to rescue the republic from political collapse and prepare a new, cleaner era. When President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro was looking for a technocratic interim prime minister last month, Mr Prodi was again in the running in the race eventually won by the career banker Lamberto Dini. Mr Prodi's latest project has been brewing since September.

The plain-looking, bespectacled professor plans a tour of the country's top 100 towns in an old-fashioned campaign bus - about as far away as you can get from Mr Berlusconi's sharp suits and television politics.

In one respect Mr Prodi has digested the lessons of the Berlusconi era. If his experiment comes off, it will be proof that Italy has definitively abandoned consensus politics in favour of a more personality-based, "presidential" system - the kind of robust leadership Mr Berlusconi has favoured all along.