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Romano Prodi: Economist, Cyclist, Centrist and the Anti-Berlusconi

February 9, 1995

ROME (AP) _ The foes of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi have hitched their fortunes to a cherubic, bicycling economist closely tied to the once-mighty Christian Democrats.

With Romano Prodi’s entry into the electoral arena, Italian politics has suddenly telescoped into a two-man rivalry, a sign of how parties have declined as the country’s arbiters of powers.

The left and a clutch of Roman Catholics and centrists have settled on the 55-year-old professor to overcome Berlusconi in the next national elections, expected as early as this spring.

The man newspapers call ``The Anti-Berlusconi″ has never been elected to office. He served in government only once, as industry minister in 1978 under Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat leader now under investigation for Mafia ties.

Through most of the 1980s and again in 1993-4, Prodi ran Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI), the huge, debt-plagued, state-owned conglomerate founded by Benito Mussolini in the Fascist era.

Though a political payoff scandal erupted under his watch at IRI, he has been untouched by the wave of corruption cases called ``Tangentopoli″ (Bribesville).

In the new style of Italian politics, Prodi is running like an American politician. He has himself photographed riding a bike, peering through his thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He promises a Clinton-like bus campaign. He challenged Berlusconi to a one-on-on debate. He courts celebrity endorsements.

When asked why he was running, he told state television: ``Because there was meanness (in politics), there was tension, there was, I think, the necessity to represent good sentiments.″

He has offered few details of his program so far.

``My fundamental proposal, which soon must be articulated, is a light-handed state which, however, involves many citizens and can build social safety nets,″ he said.

Prodi has become the darling of mainstream media generally hostile to Berlusconi, who was forced to resign as premier in December.

But surveys show only about half of Italians know his name, said Milan pollster Giorgio Calo. Nor is it certain whether Prodi has the political toughness or skills to be a legitimate contender.

Critics also say he was able to restore IRI into the black thanks to a huge government bailout, and favored a slower privatization of IRI companies.

The Prodi-Berlusconi confrontation is part of a process that began in April 1993, when Italians voted in a referendum to make elections more direct.

The change, plus the long-running corruption scandal and rise of the regional Northern League party, helped bring down the Christian Democrats and their small centrist allies who controlled Italy since World War II.

That opened the door for Berlusconi, who formed his own party and jumped into politics 13 months ago.

``The way Prodi is coming in confirms there is a trend toward a more presidential type of system″ in Italy, said Sergio Romano, a commentator for La Stampa newspaper of Turin.

``They are coming in above the parties’ heads. They are appealing directly to the people,″ Romano said in an interview.

Prodi has picked up the support of key former Christian Democrats, now called the Popular Party.

Political insiders say he also received the private endorsement of the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communists. The party is keeping its distance _ too close an identification could only hurt, given the strong anti-Communist sentiments of many Italian voters.

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