Exit Vendola, stage left, as Puglia’s regional president

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Nichi Vendola, the openly gay, openly socialist president of Puglia, the southeastern Italian region, was once the new face of the Italian left — and was regarded as a potential prime minister by fawning profiles in the global media in 2010 and 2011.pugliaItaly Flag Icon

That praise came with good reason.

Vendola (pictured above), in the waning days of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s domination of Italian politics, was the anti-Berlusconi. In a conservative region like Puglia, where Catholicism is still a strong force, Puglia became an unlikely leader.

This week, however, Vendola announced that while he would always be a militante of the left, he will step aside as the leader of his democratic socialist party, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), when he leaves office in Puglia later this year. Italy will hold regional elections in seven regions, including Puglia, on May 31. In recent days, Vendola has spoken about marrying his longtime partner, speculating about fatherhood.

There’s one major reason, among many, that Vendola is headed for retirement instead of to Rome.

It’s the ascendance of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, the former Florence mayor who won the leadership of the center-right Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) in November 2013 and who wrested the premiership in February 2014 from his technocratic PD colleague Enrico Letta. In one sense, Renzi’s rise has been great news for the Italian left. Renzi’s youthful image and reform-minded approach to government has positioned the Democratic Party as the most dominant centrist force since the fall of the old Christian Democratic Party in the early 1990s.

While that’s been wonderful for moderates, plenty of die-hard leftists are not thrilled with Renzi, especially among the labor unions that have traditionally controlled the political left. For Vendola, an avowed communist, Renzi’s dominance will almost certainly close the door to any further ambitions for Vendola. Despite his widespread popularity in Puglia, where he won two consecutive elections, Vendola failed to win much more than 3% of the vote nationally in the 2013 general election. Though SEL is still polling between 3% and 5% in national polls, it’s difficult to see much of a future for the party without Vendola, whose star quality and charisma propelled it as a wary electoral partner for the Democratic Party, even if Vendola has increasingly distanced himself from Renzi over the past two years. With Vendola’s retirement and with the 2008 collapse of the successor to Italy’s Communist Party, Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC, Communist Refoundation Party), it will be difficult to find any bona-fide communists in the homeland of Gramsci.

Vendola opposed Renzi’s insurgent 2012 campaign to become the center-left’s prime ministerial candidate (he preferred Pier Luigi Bersani), and he more recently opposed Renzi’s push for labor market reforms. In last year’s European parliamentary elections, Vendola and the SEL supported the far-left group aligned with Greece’s current prime minister Alexis Tsipras, breaking with Renzi and the PD, which supported the Party of European Socialists headed by the European parliament’s president, Martin Schulz.

Five years ago, however, during Vendola’s first term as regional president, Berlusconi took his rise seriously, dismissing Vendola with thinly veiled remarks deriding homosexuality. Vendola’s most enduring legacy, perhaps, will be to open Italian politics to the idea of openly gay leaders, especially in the conservative south. Vendola’s success opened the path for Rosario Crocetta, whose election as Sicily’s center-left and openly gay regional president was even more improbable than Vendola’s rise. Renzi hopes to pass a civil unions law this spring, though he has ruled out full marriage equality for now, given the Vatican’s strong opposition.

Vendola, like many before him, did not find a way to unlock economic vitality in Italy’s south. In Puglia, he’ll leave behind endemically higher unemployment and lower incomes in a region that’s been historically resistant to change or to reform. The region has one of the Italy’s per-capita GDPs on a region-by-region basis, nearly half of that found in Lombardy and the more prosperous regions of Italy’s north and center.

Moreover, in his second term, Vendola stumbled amid findings that toxic emissions from the Taranto-based Ilva steel plant violated environmental standards, which forced the national government to take control of the Ilva steelworks earlier this year. The plant, which is responsible for nearly 10% of the Puglian economy, is the largest steel plant in Europe, and one of Europe’s top steel producers, though production has fallen dramatically since the 2008-09 financial crisis and the 2013 emissions revelations.

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The leading candidate to succeed Vendola as regional president is Michele Emiliano, a member of the Democratic Party (and not Vendola’s SEL), who served as mayor of Bari, the Puglian capital and port city, between 2004 and 2014. Emiliano (pictured above) briefly challenged Vendola in the centrosinistra (center-left) primaries in Vendola’s 2010 bid for reelection before pulling out and backing another PD candidate, who ultimately lost to Vendola.

In 2015, Emiliano easily dispatched the SEL’s Dario Stefano, a member of the Italian senate, in the centrosinistra primaries, and he’s run a campaign pledging to act as a ‘super mayor’ of the entire Puglian region.

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