Veltroni: The 52-Year-Old Italian Upstart

Former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, at 52, would be Italy's youngest elected prime minister if he wins against 71-year-old Silvio Berlusconi in Italy's April elections. Borrowing from American presidential hopeful Barack Obama's campaign slogan "Yes we can," Veltroni is blanketing the country with his message "Si può fare" in a big green ecofriendly bus. NEWSWEEK's Barbie Nadeau caught up with Veltroni aboard the bus in rural Sicily. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Italy has a few problems right now, from infrastructure issues to the economy, that are hampering its growth. Do you see this moment as the last chance for Italy?
Yes, that is absolutely correct. I honestly believe we are facing our last chance. This country has been in a difficult situation for a number of years. It is a country that cannot seem to realize growth when it needs to. It is a country with immense potential and immense resources. You see the marvelous beauty outside the window of this Pullman bus. We have talented entrepreneurs, we have hard workers, but it is all blocked by a political system that has kept it blocked for a long time. And that makes it impossible to find a solution in either the institutional sector or in the political sector, and to realize what every other country in the West seems to manage: a period of reform.

With all these problems, do you really want to win? Why would you want to take on what seems impossible?
[Laughs] It is a sense of national responsibility. I think that if this country continues as it has, or goes on with the right, we will have a government that is forever old and tired. It is absolutely impossible for this country to ignore the need for change. Plus, with the international situation as it is today, I think that Italy realizes that it needs to change its direction, to be more productive, to adopt an economic policy that will sustain businesses, to open the channels of communication.

Would it be possible for just one political party to go on and govern, considering all the problems in the country?
It is very difficult, but it is the only solution. Look, I have taken a big risk [in abandoning the smaller radical parties] because I thought it was the right thing to do. This is something that seems obvious in other countries. In most other countries, they don't even use the word "coalition" or "majority" when electing a government. Why does it have to be this way in Italy? In this political climate, and with the enthusiasm I have seen for one party, this is the right approach.

What is your first priority if you win?
The first thing is a reform to help those who are living on the edge, the precari. We have thousands of people in Italy who live in conditions that are really very heavy. This is no way to live. The other priority is the economy. We need to grow one point a year and reduce public expenditures, because this country has public expenditures that are too high. We need to reduce the cost of the government. We have to continue to work against tax evasion and inefficiency.

If the election ended up too close for a strong majority, like last time, what would you say to sharing power with Berlusconi?
When Prodi's government fell, I proposed that we form a government together with Berlusconi, everyone together, to make institutional reforms and to pass electoral reforms. The right, specifically Berlusconi, opposed it. They carry the responsibility. If you are asking me if I would consider it again, I would say probably.

Is the Italian economy too open or too closed to international markets?
It is too closed, too blocked from every angle possible. We have an intrusive government, a government that involves itself in every aspect of business. The decline of Italy is demonstrative of this problem. The center-right has risen up to block the [Alitalia] accord with Air France. The government … has to instigate liberalization, international competition, dynamism. One of the biggest problems in Italy is the bureaucracy, the lengthy bureaucracy to get anything done. We have to give this country oxygen, to breathe life into the systems that work.