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Monday, 25 March, 2002, 14:04 GMT
The new messiah of Italy's left
Sergio Cofferati,
It is not clear if Mr Cofferati has political ambitions
A softly-spoken trade union leader is being hailed as the man who could at last bring unity to the divided and bickering ranks of the Italian left and turn it into an effective opposition to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.


We are here to fight terrorism, to support democracy and to show the government its intentions are wrong

Sergio Cofferati
Sergio Cofferati, the head of the country's largest trade union, was behind a mass rally in Rome on Saturday, which has been described by some Italian newspapers as the biggest of its kind ever to take place in the country.

The 54-year-old Mr Cofferati pressed ahead with the rally - against plans to overhaul the country's labour market - despite the reservations of many of his political colleagues, and its success is being seen as his personal victory.

The rally followed the assassination by ultra-left guerrillas last week of a government aide, Marco Biagi, who had been working on the labour laws.

Commentators speculated that the left would be wrongfooted by the tragedy, and would find it hard to mount a determined protest to the proposed reforms, which are designed to give employers much greater freedom to fire their workers.

Silvio Berlusconi
The left has so far given Mr Berlusconi an easy ride
But Mr Cofferati had different ideas.

"We are here to fight terrorism, to support democracy and to show the government its intentions are wrong," he told the one million demonstrators crammed into the Circus Maximus, site of ancient Rome's chariot races.

"With your courage and your passion, we will realise our dreams."

Missed opportunities

Sympathetic political commentators have frequently despaired of the left's apparant inability to capitalise on what appears to be growing discontent with the style and content of Mr Berlusconi's politics.


He has confirmed that he is the only leader capable of conducting a firm and effective opposition to the Berlusconi government

La Repubblica
They note that Mr Berlusconi's legal problems - including charges of false accounting, tax fraud and bribing judges - and the conflict of interests posed by his joint role as media mogul and government leader, ought to make him an easy target.

But the leaders of country's multi-party left-wing coalition, the Olive Tree, have all too frequently been too busy quarrelling among themselves to do much sniping at the government.

"They massacre each other without worrying that they are unable to create a programme, a true programme," Romano Prodi, founder of the Olive Tree and the president of the European Commission, is once reported to have said.

Plans under wraps

Against this background, the left-wing Italian media has moved quickly to portray Mr Cofferati as the new messiah of the country's left, which was hammered by Mr Berlusconi's right-wing coalition at the last elections.

"He has confirmed that he is the only leader capable of conducting a firm and effective opposition to the Berlusconi government," declared La Repubblica, saying he would offer a leadership "true to the values and historical identity of the left".

Mr Cofferati, an engineer by training, will step down as head of the Italian General Confederation of Labour in June, after eight years at the helm.

A recent newspaper poll indicated that nearly 60% of centre-left supporters would like to see him as a future leader of their movement.

But despite the current accolades, Mr Cofferati is playing his cards close to his chest, and has yet to reveal his political plans.

See also:

23 Mar 02 | Europe
Italian unions hail rally success
03 Mar 02 | Europe
Italy's left confronts Berlusconi
13 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Italy
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