MASSIMO D'ALEMA was grinning so obviously during a recent television interview that the talk show host stopped himself in mid-sentence to ask why.
``They tell me I have to smile more,'' Mr. D'Alema admitted candidly.
D'Alema, the head of Italy's largest opposition party, is fighting fire with fire, and it's working.
Today, if Italians could elect their prime minister directly (as many would like to do), most would choose D'Alema, the youthful leader of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). This is a dramatic turnaround from March, when just-nominated Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seemed unbeatable with his warm smile and folksy TV persona.
The dark-haired, mustachioed PDS leader comes across to viewers as thoughtful, spontaneous, at peace with himself, and gently ironic. For the prime minister, the timing could have been better.
Like United States President Clinton, Mr. Berlusconi has lost support as his right-wing government has gone on. Controversy dogs the government: criticism of the conflict of interest between Berlusconi's political position and his ownership of three private TV networks, protests against cuts to social spending in the proposed 1995 budget, and political squabbles within his ruling coalition.
This growing unease has made the PDS the country's No. 1 party, according to another late October opinion poll.
The PDS would win 24 percent of the vote, against 22.5 percent for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. The rest of the votes go to more than a dozen other groups across the political spectrum. In a poll just four months ago, Berlusconi's party got 33.5 percent, with the PDS trailing at 20.7 percent.
``We are representing the opposition's point of view in an effective way, therefore we are winning a growing consensus,'' D'Alema told the Monitor, as he marched with 1.5 million Italians Saturday in the country's largest postwar demonstration, organized by trade union leaders to protest Berlusconi's proposed 1995 budget. ``We are working to create a great party of the left, that will be reformist, European, and able to run for election to the country's government.''
D'Alema's popularity is striking, considering he was only elected to the PDS leadership on July 1. His predecessor, Achille Occhetto, resigned after Berlusconi trounced the party, first in Italy's March parliamentary elections and then in the June European Parliament poll.
Berlusconi won largely because he succeeded in uniting Italy's right behind his message that Italy's left was illiberal, with the same old faces and programs: i.e., communist.
This negative campaigning was so effective because the Italian Communist Party, Western Europe's largest, dominated Italy's left. Mr. Occhetto and D'Alema were once Communist leaders. But after the Berlin Wall collapsed, Occhetto succeeded both in transforming the Italian Communist Party into a mainstream left party, the PDS, and in alienating a hard-line rump, which went off to create the Communist Refoundation party.
Although the experience was wrenching, for some on the left the transformation has not yet been completed.
``I have some problems with the PDS,'' admits Antonello Zacco, who is finishing his required year of military service by working in a Rome ministerial office as a conscientious objector.
Mr. Zacco has voted for the PDS, as well as for small left-of-center parties that are crumbling as Italy adjusts to its new British-style electoral system. He likes the PDS's ideas, but he still feels a little uneasy.
``I think the PDS has a very monolithic structure,'' he says. ``Perhaps the decisions are too centralized at the top of the pyramid.''
Zacco nonetheless would like to see the left come to power, something that has never happened in the country's democratic history. Whether this can happen soon is unclear. Certainly the Berlusconi government has disappointed even some of its own supporters and is widely predicted to collapse early next year under the weight of internal opposition.
``I believe there's a general disenchantment with the Berlusconi government, which involves both social issues and issues regarding democracy and its rules,'' D'Alema says. ``This government appears untrustworthy on both counts.''
D'Alema, who has been a parliamentary deputy since 1987, proposes creating ``a government of rules,'' which would be made up of the broadest possible coalition of political parties. Its aim, he says, would be to introduce new laws that would reform Italy's institutions and break the country's tradition of political patronage and corruption.