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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 October 2007, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Veltroni: Rising star of Italy's left
By Neil Arun
BBC News

He entered politics as a communist but the new leader of the Italian left is more likely to quote his hero Robert Kennedy than Karl Marx.

Walter Veltroni's centrist beliefs belie his radical beginnings - he says nowadays that he was never a true communist.

Walter Veltroni and Robert de Niro
Mr Veltroni (L) is often seen with film stars

He is one of Italy's most popular politicians, a hyperactive, outgoing man who has been twice elected mayor of Rome.

This week, the 52-year-old was chosen by a landslide to lead Italy's newest - and largest - political grouping, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

His supporters say he has the charisma and the bipartisan appeal to eventually lead the country.

Mr Veltroni has described the PD in almost revolutionary terms, calling it a "new force" that would "invent a new language" to address voters.

His critics say he has built a career out of being all things to all men and his policies, as a result, are often contradictory.

Support base

The PD was formed in 2007 after a merger between the socialist Democrats of the Left and the liberal Christian Democrats of the Margherita (Daisy) party.

It immediately eclipsed former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia as the single largest party in parliament.

Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda in Rome, 1967
Rome is again attracting Hollywood stars, as it did in the 1960s

The current Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, spearheaded its creation, hoping to simplify Italy's splintered political scene and shore up his own shaky centre-left coalition.

Though the formation of the PD is good news for his government, analysts say the election of Mr Veltroni suggests Mr Prodi's days as leader are numbered.

According to Franco Pavoncello, president and political science lecturer at Rome's John Cabot University, the mayor of Rome is well placed to outshine Mr Prodi.

Mr Veltroni is the first leader of the left in a long time to have the full backing of his party, Mr Pavoncello says.

"Prodi by comparison has always been more like the party-less leader of a coalition," he says.

'La Dolce Vita'

For the time being, Mr Veltroni says he intends to continue as mayor of Rome - a post he has held since 2001.

His campaign has included pledges to fight corruption and crime and to give Rome's inhabitants fresh cause to take pride in their city.

Walter Veltroni
Born in Rome in 1955; father was a prominent journalist
Early career as left-wing journalist
Deputy to PM Romano Prodi from 1996 to 98
Mayor of Rome from 2001 onwards
Authored many books, one of them a study of Robert Kennedy

Eye-catching new buildings have been commissioned from renowned architects and Rome has now got its own film festival.

Hollywood celebrities have been returning to the city in a manner some columnists say evokes La Dolce Vita - the 1960 film depicting Rome as a playground of the rich and famous.

Mr Veltroni's critics say his cultural achievements mask civic failures.

Rome's roads remain congested and its public transport network desperately needs overhaul, with aggressive unions restricting the number of taxis allowed to work the city's streets.

"Crime rates are rising, the roads are crumbling, the city is falling apart," an Italian parliamentary commentator says.

But, he says, the public appear unwilling to blame their soft-spoken, personable mayor.

"The emperors used to appease the Roman public with bread and circuses. Veltroni has managed it with circuses alone," he says.

"He is the miracle boy of the Italian left."

'Bomb-proof relationship'

According to Mr Pavoncello, none of Rome's problems are easily solved.

"Rome has a huge bureaucracy," he says. "No mere mayor could reform it - that would require the genius of Leonardo da Vinci."

Nonetheless, Mr Pavoncello says he expects Mr Veltroni to be more forceful than Mr Prodi in pushing through new initiatives.

The new PD leader has spoken of his desire to reduce the number of ministers in parliament and to make the Senate function in the manner of a regional assembly - moves intended to stabilise governments and make it easier to pass legislation.

Speaking after his election, Mr Veltroni insisted he was not going to undermine Mr Prodi's authority.

"For myself and Romano, this is a dream come true and our relationship is bomb-proof," he said.

Italy is not due to go to the polls again until 2010 and Mr Prodi's poor ratings and narrow Senate majority mean he is unlikely to call an early election.

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