Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s would-be prime minister

AS SOON as you walk into his office on the Campidoglio hill, in the heart of old Rome, Francesco Rutelli takes you to a little balcony at the back. Down below, the ancient forum, with its temples and colonnades and courtyards, spreads out towards the the Colosseum .Here, a mere 2,000 years ago, strolling Romans discussed the business of the empire. Mr Rutelli, the city’s mayor, is proud that this majestic swathe of history falls within his domain. But these days he has reason to be still more excited. Running one of the great capitals of the world is one thing. If things go well, by next summer he could be running the country. A month ago, stuck well behind in the polls, Italy’s quarrelsome coalition government of the left, which has had three prime ministers in four years, decided that the only chance of staying in power was to pick a tall, handsome, energetic figure to trump Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate with a populist touch who leads an alliance of the right. Compared, inevitably, to both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Mr Rutelli comes from a well-to-do Roman background, has charm, brains, a nice family and a tough wife who is a well-known journalist.
Now a youthful 46, he entered parliament in 1983, for the Radicals, a small party of the centre-left. He was a pacifist. Then he joined the Greens. He was minister for all of a day in 1993, but resigned when parliament refused to investigate the late Bettino Craxi, a former Socialist prime minister, for corruption (for which he was later convicted). Mr Rutelli was elected mayor of Rome a few months later, and won office again in 1997, with a record 60% of the vote in the first round.
By general assent, he has been a good mayor. He has sold off public assets, promoted schemes to pep up local business, and told Romans to park their cars nicely in proper spaces which-to general surprise-they have done. In 1998, the prime minister of the day, Romano Prodi, asked him to oversee the jubilee of the Catholic Church in 2000, and cater for millions of pilgrims. Mr Rutelli’s energy, and perhaps his education by nuns, helped him to get on with the Vatican. The millennial celebrations have gone well.
The latest opinion polls offer mixed omens. Mr Rutelli is more popular, today, than Mr Berlusconi. Yet most Italians say they will vote for the right. Mr Rutelli has barely six months, and conceivably less, if an election is called earlier, in which to use his own charms to lift the prospects of the left.
His priority is to give the left at least a veneer of unity. "When the current government was being formed," he moans, "a delegation of 17 party leaders [on the centre-left] went to see the president! Can you believe it? Seventeen! That’s more than a rugby team." The present coalition of the left has been exceptionally fractious-not surprisingly, since it embraces Greens and Catholics, liberals and Marxists, ex-communists and free-marketeers Mr Rutelli now belongs to the Democrats, a small party founded barely a year ago by Mr Prodi. Several notable vote-winners with small parties may or may not back him, including Emma Bonino and her Radicals, and the followers of a former star anti-corruption prosecutor, Antonio Di Pietro. Under Italy’s current system, midgets can make a difference. They backed Mr Prodi in 1996, sunk him in 1998, backed his successor, Massimo D’Alema, then dumped him too. They helped pick the present prime minister, Giuliano Amato, only to plump for Mr Rutelli as the left’s candidate instead. Only a fool would count on their loyalty.
It is when you try to pin Mr Rutelli down on specific policies that his ebullience begins to evaporate. "Once I am officially appointed [on October 21st], I expect all parties to send me their views on three pages," he says breezily. "Then I’ll sum them all up, and we’ll go from there. We’ll have a one-page programme. Maybe even a five-line programme." Pressed for detail, he trots out the usual platitudes about investing in technology, speeding up privatisation, helping the poor south, fighting unemployment, and so on. It is all terribly vague.
And campaign cash? "There will be many private contributors and some big donors…but I can’t reveal their names. Let’s say they are rich business people, who don’t like the idea of Mr Berlusconi in power." As with policies, it sounds a bit fuzzy too.
Mr Rutelli says he will be off on a nationwide tour. He is a whizz on the Internet. And he is keen to sign up Stanley Greenberg, one of Mr Clinton’s cleverest pollsters. "It was he who suggested Al Gore’s big kiss with Tipper at the Democrats’ convention," Mr Rutelli confides approvingly.
Mr Berlusconi’s people chuckle at the choice of an American adviser-and sneer at Mr Rutelli’s lack of national policies. Yet they also seem quite rattled by him. "I am no communist, and I’m not a man of the past," he says. "They find that hard to handle…They are immature. Mr Berlusconi tells a pack of lies. He cannot possibly bring taxes down by 11-15%. That would reduce revenue by 220,000-330,000 billion lire [$97 billion-146 billion]."
Mr Rutelli is pretty rude, too, about the once-separatist Northern League’s Umberto Bossi, who is yet again Mr Berlusconi’s ally. "He is a bigger problem than [Austria’s Jörg] Haider. He says worse things. Let’s not forget he went to see [Slobodan] Milosevic in Belgrade at the time when he was using human shields." But Mr Rutelli says that Italy should not be treated as a pariah, as Austria was, if the right, with post-fascists as well as maybe-separatists on board, were elected. "Those are internal problems."
Perhaps Mr Rutelli’s biggest problem is that, novel and attractive as he is to many Italians, the cluster of interests behind him smells very much of the ancien régime of the left. The same people once appointed by the left to run state companies are popping up as heads of partially-privatised ones. The same trade unionists still back the left-and block labour reform. The same fierce lobbies that would cheer Mr Rutelli, be they teachers or civil servants, tend to resist the market reforms that he says he supports. Does Mr Rutelli see the dilemma? He smiles blandly. First he must get elected. Then Italy can see what he can do. It is all quite a punt.
Beppe Severgnini
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The Economist Newspaper Group Ltd.

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