When Italy Can't Tell Its Left From Right

Conservative Mafia-fighter runs under Red flag against a Red journalist.

In Italy, it's the political matchup of the decade. Call it Kojak versus The Clean Hand.

In what the press here has gleefully defined a "clash between titans," two hugely popular Italian public figures - neither of them career politicians - will run against each other for a seat in the Senate in coming elections. Anticorruption crusader Antonio Di Pietro is expected to take on controversial journalist and opinion-maker Sandro Curzi in elections in Tuscany next month.

Neither of the two has any connection to the region, and both have candidly admitted to never having set foot there. In even more of a paradox, Mr. Di Pietro, a self-described conservative, is backed by Italy's main leftist party. "My heart beats to the right," Di Pietro confessed several years ago.

A former policeman, Di Pietro built his reputation as a blunt, hard-nosed magistrate who remodeled Italy's political landscape by spearheading the "Clean Hands" probe into government corruption. During the 1993 investigation, almost an entire political class was wiped out and more than 2,000 business executives were briefly incarcerated and forced to resign from their firms.

Mr. Curzi made a name for himself as a hard-line communist reporter in Prague in the early days of the cold war. Nicknamed "Kojak" for his shiny bald head, he evolved into a famously intractable TV personality whose campaigns for Italy's poor earned him a special place in the hearts and minds of leftists.

The pair of unlikely opponents will scamper for votes in Il Mugello, a Tuscan region directly north of Florence.

Di Pietro's candidacy in a leftist stronghold is seen as an aberration even in the unpredictable terrain of Italian politics. The fact that it was engineered by the head of Italy's main leftist party, Massimo D'Alema, only adds to the confusion.

Mr. D'Alema has bared himself and his Partito Democratico delle Sinistre to searing criticism from party loyalists who argue that this time he may have gone too far, sacrificing the party's ideals for political convenience.

"Di Pietro could run against the pope and he would still win," says Laura Collura, an analyst for the right-wing daily Il Secolo D'Italia. "D'Alema was anxious to get Di Pietro on his side so he offered him a free pass to the Senate since Il Mugello has always voted communist. This time, however, it could backlash badly."

It did indeed lash back when Communist Refoundation, a small party in the governing coalition, received a call from an enraged Curzi. "I asked to run, and they said 'Good idea,' " Curzi recalled in an interview in the weekly Panorama.

While conceding Di Pietro's popularity made him a formidable adversary, Communist Refoundation leader Fausto Bertinotti maintains that voters in Il Mugello would not be fooled by "a conservative at heart." "He's also got a few legal problems he should sort out first," Mr. Bertinotti adds.

Di Pietro's supporters suffered a shock earlier in the summer when prosecutors in the northern city of Brescia let it be known the former magistrate had come under scrutiny for having allegedly accepted substantial gifts - $55,000 in cash, a cellular phone, and the use of an apartment in downtown Milan - from a close associate of Pierfrancesco Pacini Battaglia, a banker who was under investigation by Di Pietro himself for corruption.

Di Pietro never denied accepting the gifts, and his detractors wonder whether his sudden rush into politics was prompted by the need to obtain parliamentary immunity from prosecution. "I have decided to run out of a sense of duty," he wrote in his column in Oggi, a weekly magazine. "There are many things that still need to be done."

With the media speculating endlessly about the possible outcome of the election, residents of Il Mugello kept a surprisingly low profile. Even local party leaders have shied away from media scrutiny, leading to speculation that the base may be staging a rebellion against its leadership for the first time in 50 years.

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