At first glance, Nichi Vendola might look more like an Italian film star than a politician who is threatening the old party order in his country: He wears an earring and has a ring on his thumb, a childish face bearing a rebellious expression, and silvery hair in the mode of Harrison Ford.
But anyone who listens to him will have no difficulty identifying that the charismatic president of the Apulia region of Italy, a poet who has published four books of his works, is clearly the most fascinating phenomenon on the country's political scene. The man who "until recently was perceived as too southern, too communist, too Catholic, too gay," wrote the weekly L'espresso earlier this month, is "casting fear" on the political arena.
This spring, Vendola, who turns 52 next week, proved his prowess when he headed the independent list Left Ecology Freedom. Against the odds he defeated the well-oiled machines of both the left and the right to win re-election in his native region in southeast Italy, known for its conservative, rightist tendencies.
"To defeat the right, I first had to overpower the center-left," he says in a telephone interview with Haaretz. And that is exactly what he intends to do at the national level too.
Public opinion is in Vendola's favor: 51 percent of center-left supporters favor him to head their camp, according to a survey published in the daily La Repubblica, as compared to 49 percent who express support for the current head of the opposition center-left Democratic Party (PD ), Pier Luigi Bersani. That gap widened considerably when respondents were asked which of the two has the better chance of defeating incumbent Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when the time comes: 49 percent said the president of Apulia, as compared to only 31 percent for the chairman of the PD.
Since the next election now seems closer than previously expected, following a split in the ruling People of Freedom Party, public opinion polls like this one are increasing the pressure on the opposition party, PD, and also apparently inside Berlusconi's coalition - whose members have undoubtedly heard the comparison some are making between the prime minister and Vendola.
"Both of them are charismatic politicians who grew up outside the party establishment; both address the Catholic public and centrist voters - Berlusconi with a tilt to the right and Vendola toward the left," says Carlo Bollino, editor in chief of the widely distributed southern Italian daily La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. "And like Berlusconi, when he was first setting out on his political path, in the early 1990s, Vendola also sometimes appears at public events accompanied by his mother - another way of instilling confidence and encouraging dialogue with families."
Vendola wants to distinguish himself from "politicians on the right, the center and the left who look like commercial products," he says. "I haven't built myself up by means of designing a plastic image, but rather in a search for the authentic. I am not prepared to relinquish a single one of my identities and I don't hide a single one of my weaknesses. I am a person full of flaws, full of fears and I don't live as though I were a television commercial.
Vendola, most probably, prefers the comparison between him and the president of the United States - and the nickname "the white Obama," which some of the media have given him. However, "This is an exaggerated definition, too flattering, too big for my little shoulders," notes the man, who heads a region whose population is 4.2 million. "Obama is one of the greatest protagonists in the history of this new century and he fascinates me in part because his political language is always directed toward the future and he brought back into use the vocabulary of peace - peace among nations, peace between women and men and peace between man and nature."
Vendola was born in 1958 in the city of Bari to communist and devout Catholic parents who named him Nicola - after the patron saint of the city - and at the same time gave him the nickname Nikita in homage to the then-leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. He joined the local Communist Party in his teens and completed a university degree in literature and philosophy. He wrote his thesis about film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, also Catholic, communist and gay.
After completing his studies, Vendola started writing for communist newspapers like l'Unita, joined the national Communist Party and was elected to parliament four times on behalf of the radical leftist party Rifondazione Comunista, of which he was one of the founders. He was first elected president of the Apulia region in 2005, a position to which he was re-elected with a sweeping surprise margin this past March.
In July Vendola explicitly expressed, for the first time, willingness to submit his candidacy for the primary elections of the center-left, in order "to run for the leadership of the country and rescue Italy from the South American drift it is getting swept into," and to destroy the old political order, in which the left acts like "an army of condo administrators."
"In a country like Italy, which has lost its way and has degenerated into total decadence, we need a left that is able to throw a lifesaver to this wretched country, which is not only in a dramatic economic and social crisis but also has lost its civil codes and its ability to formulate ideas for a future," he explains.
"In the face of the ideologies of the right, which always plays the ghost of fear - the heart of all the rightist movements in the world - the left does not need to say, 'We will be able to exorcise this ghost better.' In the face of the factory of fear, it has to present a factory of hope and build a picture of a solidary and welcoming society - and this is what I have done in Apulia."
Vendola does not see any contradiction between being a devout Catholic and his declared sexual identity. "I have always been Catholic and gay, I have never concealed this and I refuse to adopt feelings of guilt," he said in interviews with Italian media. "It is easier to talk about this with priests than with politicians." But he regrets never having children. "I could have been a good father," he has said.
Nor does he see any contradiction between Catholicism and communism. They can exist side by side, he asserted in July, in an interview to a state television channel, "Just like the inscription engraved in one of the villages in Apulia: 'Workers of the world, unite under Jesus.'"
"And indeed, even in a conservative, rightist and slightly bigoted region like his, Vendola the communist gay man does not alarm the Catholics," says editor Bollino. "He finds an attentive ear among a variety of publics that aren't in conformity with the usual division between left and right. If he runs for head of the center-left while shaking up the traditional political party order, he has a good chance of replicating his success in the region at the national level as well. But if during his campaign for the party's candidacy for prime minister someone in the center-left decides to open the door to Vendola and spare him the head-on clash with the party bureaucracy, he is liable in fact to fail."
Vendola, who visited Israel as a pilgrim in 1999, does not conceal his discomfort with its policy in the territories.
"I have a critical attitude toward the government of Israel, but also toward Europe, which in recent years should have taken more decisive action to prepare the ground for dialogue and peace," he says. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a gaping wound in the Middle East and in the world. The pictures we have seen in recent years - what is happening in the territories on the one hand and the terror attacks inside Israel on the other - have been horrifying and unbearable. The entire international community should have been mustered, but Europe is absent from this important part of the world."
After the Israel Defense Forces' deadly boarding of the Turkish "Freedom Flotilla," in May, Vendola said very harsh things about the government of Israel, which, according to him, "spilled innocent blood and committed an unprecedented act of barbarism against pacifists."
Today, however, when asked if he still holds these opinions, after it has become clear that not all the flotilla participants were peace activists, Vendola sounds more reserved. "What happened there," he explains, "was something very grave and I believe the international community responded as it should have. I am not about to hand out grades. I think tragic mistakes were made there and there is blame on all sides. But I do believe the Palestinian people's demand for a homeland of its own is an issue that cannot be pushed off the political agenda - just as Israel's right to security is an aim for which everyone should aim."
Vendola hastens to mention his pride in the cultural heritage left in Apulia by the Jews who found refuge there after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. This heritage is an integral part of the local identity, he notes: "It's important to me to mention this because sometimes no distinction is made between the two levels, and heaven help us if criticism of a government becomes something else, poison that must be fought with all our might."
When asked what he wishes for himself for his 52nd birthday and what he wishes for his country, which soon will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its unification, Vendola heaves a deep, long sigh. "My country celebrates a century and a half while in a state of moral decay. It is celebrating a birthday on the backdrop of the deepening gap between rich and poor and is liable in a certain respect to regress back to the 19th century. Paradoxically, it is liable to mark the 150 years of its unification under the sign of splitting and fragmentation," he says, referring to the separatist tendencies of the Northern League party in the coalition.
"A homeland is not just a flag. It is a community, a feeling, a story consisting of rights and obligations," he adds fervently. "I wish that my country will once again be a model of civilization and culture in the Mediterranean basin, a country where social rights, the right to liberty and human rights will be the colors of its flag."