Observers rate Prodi as bland, but tough

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 April, 2006, 12:00am

Romano surely is the finest Christian name possible for an Italian prime minister - the word is so Latin that the country's best political scientists would struggle to come up with one better. Yet Romano Prodi, the man who seems likely to again be Italy's prime minister after narrowly defeating the incumbent Silvio Berlusconi in elections this week, is better known across the southern European country by the nickname, 'Mortadella'.

The name is far from complimentary - mortadella, known by Americans as bologna sausage, is a type of poor man's ham, made of finely ground pork and pieces of lard. Synonymous with the northern city of Bologna, where Mr Prodi lives, it is bland and uninteresting, yet convenient and filling.

Italians believe those attributes are also shared by Mr Prodi and at a glance, they would seem to be correct: He is soft-spoken, mild-mannered and ordinary-looking. His joys in life are bicycling and books and when it comes to popular music, he believes the genre ended with The Beatles. Without a doubt, those are the hallmarks of blandness.

But there is much more to him than meets the eye: How else could he have defeated the flamboyant, in-your-face, immensely wealthy Mr Berlusconi, not once, but twice? Or have risen to the helm of Europe as European Commission president or become a professor at one of the country's finest universities at the age of 32?

While his supporters on the centre-left anoint him with a halo and say he can do no wrong, his critics mutter darkly about his Teflon coating. He has been accused of corruption, linked to the murder of a former prime minister and accused of being a spy for the former Soviet Union, but none of the charges has stuck. One of Italy's best-known newspaper columnists, Beppe Severgnini, who was among the half of the country's 40 million voters plus 25,000 who voted for Mr Prodi, contended the politician was 'a much tougher man than he looks'.

'He is extremely determined and a little vindictive,' Mr Severgnini said. 'He never forgets the people who have wronged him.'

But more than determination has lifted him to the top of his country's famously fractious political system. Critics mutter it is his left-wing connections, which extend to the judiciary and beyond, while supporters put it down to simple genius.

No doubt some of the latter was responsible for his getting Italy into economic shape while prime minister from 1996 to 1998 so that it could become part of the European monetary union and be eligible to adopt the euro. Mr Severgnini put that down to Mr Prodi's great negotiating skills, coupled with a generous dose of persuasion.

'The public finances were in a shambles, so he introduced a 'European tax' to get them back into shape,' Mr Severgnini said. 'If that had been tried in Britain, they would have taken to the streets. But Italians paid up and shut up and didn't protest.'

But such skills are unlikely to have been responsible for his defeat of Mr Berlusconi in parliamentary elections in 1996 and less convincingly this week. The media tycoon, Italy's wealthiest man, is by far a better communicator. That was vividly apparent during campaigning, with Mr Berlusconi flying by his private jet from rally to rally to speak animatedly to thousands of supporters, while Mr Prodi rambled along in a battered old bus, stopping here and there to mumble some words to a few dozen people here, perhaps a few hundred there.

As the results showed, though, the techniques did not much matter to Italians - the election was less about picking the best leader than determining whether Mr Berlusconi, Italy's longest-serving prime minister since the second world war, should continue in office. Just under half the country said he should, while the rest determined he was either too divisive, filled with self-interest, bad for Italy's international image or corrupt.

But Mr Prodi was not spared such suggestions - merely that he seems more capable when it comes to batting them away.

Born in Reggio Emilia, near Bologna, 67 years ago, he was the eighth of nine children and among seven of them who became university lecturers. A devout Roman Catholic, he graduated in economics from Milan's Catholic University in 1961 and did postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. In 1963, he joined the University of Bologna as an assistant professor, and was appointed a full professor in 1971, teaching industrial organisation and policy there until 1999. In between, he did stints as a visiting professor in the US at Harvard University and the Stanford Research Institute.

Mr Prodi joined the left-wing Christian Democrats, which led virtually every Italian government after the fall of fascism in 1945, and in the mid-1970s began entering politics. His first ministerial post came in 1978, when he was appointed industry minister, which he held for six months. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he was on various government commissions.

His first brush with scandal came in 1978 during the kidnapping and murder by the Red Brigades terrorist group of long-serving former Christian Democratic prime minister Aldo Moro. Mr Prodi and other members of the University of Bologna's faculty passed on a tip to police about a safe house where they believed Moro was being held. Bizarrely, Mr Prodi claimed he had been given the information by the founders of the Christian Democratic Party, contacted from beyond the grave during a seance and passed on via a Ouija board.

From 1982 to 1989 and from 1993 to 1994, he was chairman of the powerful state-owned industrial holding company IRI, a collection of more than 100 state enterprises that was a relic of fascist times. While at the helm, he turned the conglomerate from loss-making to profit and launched a series of private-enterprise programmes.

Twice during those times he was investigated for alleged corruption. First, he was accused of conflict of interest over contracts awarded to his own economic research company, and then over the sale of a loss-making, state-owned food conglomerate to the multinational firm Unilever - for which he had once been a consultant. He was found by investigating judges to have done nothing wrong.

The Moro case and the corruption allegations resurfaced during election campaigning this year. They were joined by another claim: That Mr Prodi had at one time been the 'man in Italy' for the former Soviet Union's spy agency, the KGB. Voters do not seem to have taken much notice of any of the assertions.

During the early 1990s, Italy's crusading judiciary carried out an anti-corruption drive that led to the downfall of Mr Prodi's Christian Democrats and he joined a new political bloc, Olive Tree, of which he became chairman in 1995. The following year he became prime minister, but his government fell two and a half years later when a communist coalition partner withdrew support.

Having risen to the top of Italian politics, in 1999 he set his sights on Europe, putting his name forward to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch. At the time, the commission was in crisis - it had just been dismissed following a corruption scandal - and Mr Prodi was the unanimous choice of the then 15-member union. His appointment took just one hour.

Initially, he was lambasted by the European media, especially in Britain, for being uncharismatic, too soft-spoken and a poor communicator. Jokes were made about his bicycling; that he never went anywhere without his beloved bicycle.

Quickly, though, he revealed his mediating skills, pushing the union decisively towards introduction of the euro and concluding negotiations on enlargement to 25 member states. During his five-year term, he also oversaw the introduction of the union's rapid reaction force, the branching out of the organisation from economic matters into military ones.

But while those events may have been triumphs and helped silence critics, his federalist vision of Europe - including a common European foreign policy and police force - did not come to fruition. Unable to garner support for another job in Brussels when his term ended, he went back into Italian politics.

His decision appears to have paid off. With a slim election win under his belt - assuming he is not toppled by recounts called by Mr Berlusconi - he is truly back at the helm.

There are problems, though - Italy's economy is again in a mess. Worse for Mr Prodi, whatever coalition he fronts is likely to be short-lived unless he can muster all his persuasive powers.

Hong Kong-based Italian journalist Angelo Paratico doubted Mr Prodi's assertion that his government would be able to last a full five years.

'I think it's impossible because he doesn't have the numbers,' said Mr Paratico, who admitted to having voted for Mr Berlusconi.

'In Italian politics, it is not easy to keep a coalition together and that will certainly be the case with Mr Prodi's. He has communist coalition partners and they are 50 years behind the times, really Stalinist in their thinking. That does not sit easy with former Christian Democrats.'

Mr Prodi and Mr Berlusconi are among the last of a particular breed of EU leaders - they were born in the 1930s, but most of their counterparts are from the 1940s and 1950s. They still have a thirst for political power, but how much sway they have to keep their grip with up-and-coming leaders in the wings will be their ultimate test.