Underdog in Italy's centre-left primaries aims to surprise

ROME Thu Nov 22, 2012 9:13am EST

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ROME (Reuters) - Polls show Nichi Vendola as the least popular of the three main candidates to lead the centre-left coalition best placed to win Italian elections in the spring. But the former communist poet has surprised before.

Vendola stunned even his own party when he became Italy's first openly gay governor - elected in the socially conservative south no less - after winning centre-left primaries in the Apulia region in 2005.

As a Catholic, homosexual communist, Vendola reconciles a number of contradictions in one man.

The political party he heads, 'Left Ecology Freedom', is itself an amalgam of various socialist, communist and environmentalist parties that clubbed together to overcome a law that barred parties with under 4 percent of the vote from holding seats in parliament.

To forge a coalition capable of ruling in Italy's fractured political landscape, the centre-left will certainly need to build consensus.

But as the furthest left of the three contenders for the leadership, the prospect of Prime Minister Nichi - a nickname that references Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev - could frighten markets just as Italy's borrowing costs inch down from crisis levels.

Vendola has said that if the centre-left comes to power it should abandon an agenda of spending cuts and reforms imposed by the technocrat government of Mario Monti to pull Italy from the brink of a debt crisis, arguing it punishes ordinary people and is deepening the country's recession.

Yet as one of Monti's fiercest critics, Vendola could help the centre-left appeal to the one-in-five voters who, fed up by austerity and a series of political scandals, have made comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-political Five Star Movement Italy's second most popular party.

With his trademark bowl of silver hair, earring and sleepy expression, Vendola cultivates the image of an interloper to Italy's political scene.

The buzzword of the 54-year-old's campaign is "oppure", meaning "or alternatively…"

An adept user of social media who helped found Italy's first gay rights organization and has opposed the mafia, the sometime-poet is a challenge to traditional forces with a large fanbase among younger voters.

The most recent primary poll shows Vendola at 16 percent support, versus 26 percent for Florentine mayor Matteo Renzi and 41 percent for the establishment choice, Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani.

This is directly the inverse of their respective number of followers on Facebook, where Vendola dwarfs his rivals.

When it comes to his prospects, the man himself is serene.

"It's happened to me many times. You lose in the polls and you win at the ballot box," he said breezily this week.

"I'm sure that it will happen again this time."

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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