Triumphant Prodi brings a podgy but fresh face to Italian politics

Andrew Gumbel in Rome on the unlikely professor who has led the left to victory
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One of Italy's more malicious journalists has described him as "a mortadella with a human face". During the election campaign, one of his adversaries produced a banner in which his chubby features were lampooned as a pair of buttocks with glasses. He has been dismissed as a lightweight, ridiculed for his uninspiring public speaking style, whistled off stage by hecklers and compared unflatteringly to a parish priest.

Certainly, Romano Prodi has taken his share of low blows in the campaign to lead his centre-left Olive Tree coalition into government. But, having triumphed in last week's elections, the 56-year-old economics professor from Bologna has proved he is made of sterner stuff than his detractors would admit. Asked during a live television debate about the insults suffered since he entered full-time politics 14 months ago, Mr Prodi gave a typically spirited response: "I haven't heard anyone calling me a thief or a liar. And all the rest is child's play."

His refusal to be flustered and his unstinting good humour have been key assets. When he first announced his candidacy early last year, even his adversaries on the centre-right conceded that he was "a perfect gentleman". On his campaign stops he always listened attentively to questions, took copious notes and then spoke in a voice so soft and conciliatory it often descended to a whisper.

Mr Prodi has little taste for the mudslinging that has characterised Italian politics since the toppling of the old guard four years ago, preferring to concentrate on the issues while others bicker about personalities and the vagaries of power. As such, he comes as a breath of fresh air, especially when contrasted with the prickly, conspiratorial talk of the man he beat, Silvio Berlusconi.

Indeed, Mr Prodi is the virtual antithesis of his centre-right adversary. His career has taken him through the ranks of the Italian state, not the cut-throat world of private enterprise. His friends and colleagues are concentrated around his home base in Bologna, not spread across the boardrooms and executive suites of the world's skyscraper offices and hotels. He has always believed in debate and management by consensus; not for him the macho decision-making and corporate glitz of Mr Berlusconi.

The contrast between the two men was only accentuated on the campaign trail. Mr Berlusconi dressed in snappy designer suits, sported a seemingly ineffaceable tan, rushed from appointment to appointment by helicopter and limousine, surrounded himself with private security guards and spent most of his energy on television interviews, venturing out into public only to address carefully picked audiences of adoring supporters.

Mr Prodi, on the other hand, came across as an avuncular, slightly bumbling professor, his clothes unexciting and his hair often flattened at the back from hours leaning against the headrest of his decidedly unflamboyant campaign vehicle, a soup- ed up second-hand bus.

Like John Major with his soapbox back in 1992, Mr Prodi earned much ridicule for his old-fashioned approach. One commentator sympathetic to the centre- left, Gianni Riotta, described him as "an awful candidate who promises to be a good leader", hardly the most ringing of endorsements.

Was travelling over 15,000 miles - the equivalent of a tour round the world - an adequate match for the slick packaging and upbeat promises of the opposition? Could Mr Prodi, with his low charisma and rambling sentences, really hold his own in the key television debates which even his most ardent supporters felt sure would decide the outcome?

Well, when push came to shove, he showed he could master the soundbites as well as anyone. "Mr Berlusconi, you have got one brother and 14 newspapers and periodicals. I have seven brothers but no publications to my name," he jibed in an exchange about political bias in the media.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Prodi can keep up the toughness, which he admits does not come naturally, once his government takes office in the next two to three weeks. His previous experience in high public office, as chairman of IRI, Italy's vast state industry conglomerate, suggests what is both best and worst in him: he successfully pushed through a modest privatisation programme and generated 10 trillion lire (pounds 4.2bn) in much- needed revenue, but he did so at such huge political and personal cost that he later described the job as his own personal Vietnam.

Mr Prodi's friends say of that experience that his hands were tied by the ruthless logic of clientelism and coalition politics imposed from above; his critics variously charge that he was too weak to impose his will effectively, or that he was a willing servant of a corrupt political order. Similar criticisms are likely to resurface as he grapples with the enormous problems facing Italy, starting with its runaway public debt, while trying to keep the disparate, potentially conflicting branches of the Olive Tree coalition intact.

The premier-designate has promised to maintain the open, consensual style of his campaign after he takes office. He plans, for example, to award the opposition the presidency of one of the two houses of parliament and to open cross-party talks on constitutional and electoral reform.

But some of his simple ways and good nature will have to give away under the weight of political responsibility. For a start, Mr Prodi won't be able to travel in his beloved campaign bus any more. "It won't fit through the front door of Palazzo Chigi [the prime minister's residence]," he lamented last week, admittedly with a twinkle in his eye. "Maybe it can go into a museum."