Italy's new political dynamo

June 29, 1999|By Richard Reeves

FLORENCE, Italy -- Gina Lollobrigida was supposed to be the female lead of elections for the European Parliament in Italy earlier this month. But the movie star was upstaged by a remarkable state-of-the art politician named Emma Bonino.

Remember the name. Ms. Bonino, all by herself, is the fourth-largest party in the country, and her story is a model of modern media politics. On June 13, while Ms. Lollobrigida was losing in her hometown, a new party called "Bonino's List" won 8.7 percent of the country's multiparty vote. The lady at the top of the list will control seven of Italy's 87 votes in the multinational parliament. She also seems to be her country's candidate for United Nations appointment as the civilian administrator of occupied Kosovo.

Attracting attention

She is quite a story, this 51-year-old former schoolteacher from a town called Bra in the Piedmont. Her politics are hard to describe, but her rise and tactics can be compared to the populism of Jesse Jackson or Ross Perot. First you make yourself outrageous and famous enough to attract television; then you go for every big story in sight as long as the cameras are around.

Here at home she is compared with Italy's other one-person party, Silvio Berlusconi, who has the advantage of owning three television networks and chains of newspapers and magazines. Ms. Bonino began by owning nothing but her name and a good deal of creative outrage.

She made her first national mark in 1975 at the age of 27. She appeared at a local police station to confess that she had undergone an abortion -- illegal then in this Catholic country -- and demanded to be arrested. The cops tried to get rid of her, but that turned out to be no easy thing. Ms. Bonino had the attention she wanted, and she used it to campaign for the legalization of both abortion and divorce. Both are legal now, although she failed in campaigns to legalize individual drug use.

Then she both outraged and entertained the nation with sit-ins, hunger strikes, giving away money on the streets to protest public financing of established political parties, and a campaign to adopt an American-style constitution.

She traveled the world protesting the treatment of women in refugee camps, managing to get herself arrested by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Last year, she ran for president of the republic (elected by the national parliament in Rome) with the slogan, "Finally the Right Man."

She did all of this in a country and culture that still believes that a woman's place is in the home, preferably with her mouth shut. There were only 309 women among the more than 1,800 Italian candidates running for European seats -- and some television stations never showed even one of them during the campaign. Though there are more women than men registered to vote in Italy, schoolbooks still define "universal suffrage" as voting rights for all men -- and only men.

In 1994, with the endorsement of Mr. Berlusconi, then prime minister, Ms. Bonino was appointed European commissioner of consumer affairs, fisheries and human rights.

Perhaps Mr. Berlusconi just wanted her out of the country's face for a while -- that job was in Brussels -- but, focusing her energies on trips to refugee camps, she ended up being named European of the year in a 1996 poll.

Electoral power

During those years, she was a leader of the Radical party, an idealistic little group that harassed politicians of both the left and the right, but never got close to either coalition governments or power. The vote for Bonino's List was far greater than anything the Radical Party ever got.

On the morning after the European elections, leaders of larger parties and newspaper editorials seemed mystified by the rise of Ms. Bonino, tending to blame it on television or "American-style" politics.

But the founder of the Radicals, her friend and mentor Marco Pannella, said of Ms. Bonino that she was opposed to the government and also opposed to the opposition.

Well, that can be pretty good politics sometimes. And Ms. Bonino is a pretty good politician.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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