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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Romano Prodi Will Lead Italy Back on Track

It is easy to be cynical about Italian politics -- as, indeed, many Italians themselves are -- and suggest that the illusion of change in Italy is always greater than the substance. Yet the victory of the center-left Olive Tree coalition in Italy's April 21 general elections has produced a perceptible change in the political atmosphere.


The center-left's triumph was not overwhelming and did not represent a breakthrough on the scale of the left's victory in France in 1981 and Spain in 1982. However, there are some similarities. Just as in the French and Spanish cases, the Italian election result means that for the first time in more than a generation the left has a chance to show that it can govern a major European country without everything going to pieces.


It is not going to be plain sailing for Romano Prodi, the good-humored, deliberately unflashy economics professor from Bologna who led the Olive Tree coalition to success. Despite winning an absolute majority in the Senate, he was unable to achieve the same result in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house.


Consequently, he will need to turn for support either to the hardline Marxists of the Communist Refoundation party, or to the Northern League, the separatist movement in Lombardy and the Venice area. The league campaigned separately in the election from the center-left and center-right coalitions and showed that it is far from a spent force.


It was the league's defection from the electoral alliance led by Silvio Berlusconi in 1994 that caused the collapse of the business tycoon's government after only a few months in office. The league is quite capable of making life equally difficult for Prodi. As for Communist Refoundation, their inclusion in the Olive Tree coalition should blind no one to the fact that they have no policies in common with Prodi's more moderate, social democratic colleagues.


For all that, Prodi still has some strong cards to play. Together with Lamberto Dini, the outgoing centrist Prime Minister, Prodi looks like the most credible leader on the Italian scene at the moment. By contrast, Berlusconi, once hailed as the man who would truly transform Italian politics, now seems more and more like a relic from the old system that began to self-destruct in 1992 with the disclosure of a remarkable series of political and financial scandals.


As for Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the reformed neo-Fascist National Alliance, the election result showed that Italians simply do not want him running a government.


The real test for Prodi will be his ability to introduce a set of reforms ranging from a new electoral law to an overhaul of the tax system and bringing Italy's enormous public debt under control. The latter task is perhaps the most urgent of all, since failure would surely consign Italy to the European second division while France, Germany and a handful of other countries proceed to monetary union.


Berlusconi's election victory in 1994 gave rise to a burst of optimism about Italy's future, but it rapidly turned to disillusion as it became clear that he was using his period in office to pursue his private interests as much as those of the country as a whole. It seems unlikely that Prodi will be vulnerable to the same accusation. He may not achieve wonders, but he could do much to put Italy back on the right path.