The right refused to vote for Giorgio Napolitano because of his communist past – but the irony is that as a leading reformist within the Communist movement, the man they call “the ameliorator” has done as much as anyone to lead Italy out of the confrontational politics of the cold war era.
The position that I always argued for was that the Communist Party needed to evolve, he says, to open up to the West and to Europe – I defended the democratic dialectic.
Born in 1925 in Naples, Napolitano formed a communist / anti-fascist resistance group during World War II and rose through the ranks of Palmiro Togliatti’s Italian Communist Party in the aftermath of the war.
When Soviet tanks invaded Hungary in 1956, he was asked by Togliatti to find ways of reinventing the party without breaking ties with Moscow.
Napolitano advocated free market economics and dialogue with the socialist Bettino Craxi, who had been branded a class traitor by hard line communists.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Napolitano was influential in the transformation of the Italian Communist Party into the social democratic PDS, against the objections of those who advocated a purist line.
As speaker of the lower house of parliament in the early 1990s, he acquired the reputation of fair handedness, overseeing stormy debates about the “Clean Hands” corruption investigations with considerable authority. He went on to become Interior Minister in Romano Prodi’s first government, before becoming a member of the European Parliament then Senator for Life.
This distinguished career wasn’t enough though to convince Italy’s opposition to rally behind him for the presidency – he may be a gentleman, they said, but he’s a communist.