BOLOGNA (Italy): When Sergio Cofferati was leader of Italy’s largest trade union, he orchestrated mammoth protests against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in his battle to uphold workers’ rights.
Now, in his new role as mayor of the prosperous city of Bologna, he is fighting to uphold the rule of law — a switch of focus that has enraged hardline supporters who accuse him of targeting poor, exploited immigrants.
A boisterous demonstration followed by a failed letter bomb attack against Cofferati, once dubbed “The Messiah of the Left”, has jolted the city’s vaulted council chamber as the ruling coalition totters close to collapse.
But the rumpus has reverberated far beyond Bologna’s majestic medieval squares and raised questions about the ability of Italy’s disparate centre-left to govern effectively should it win next year’s general election.
Cofferati was head of Italy’s hard-left CGIL union for 8 years and famously brought more than one million people onto the streets of Rome in 2002 to protest against plans by Berlusconi to make it easier to hire and fire workers.
At the end of his mandate, he moved into local politics and in June last year, he triumphed in Bologna standing as a candidate for the Democrats of the Left (DS), the largest centre-left party in Italy.
Well-off and well-dressed, Bologna is a thriving northern Italian city, famous for its food, porticoes and politics — traditionally as red as its old brick palaces.
But Cofferati’s unexpected crusade against illegality, which has affected the city’s rapidly growing immigrant population, has led communists to question his leftist credentials.
“Bologna is red, red with shame,” a group of protesters chanted last month as riot police prevented them from entering city hall to voice their anger.
Cofferati raised eyebrows last month when he announced a crackdown against immigrants cleaning car windscreens at road junctions following complaints of harassment.
A week later, he called in a bulldozer to raze riverside shacks illegally set up by immigrants. Some of the Romanians rounded up in the dawn raid did not have valid residency documents and have since been ordered to leave Italy.
“What we are doing doesn’t seem so very radical to me,” said Cofferati sitting in his city hall office, oil paintings hanging on the walls and old comic books on his desk.
“We have to get away from the mindset that the left takes care of social solidarity and the right deals with law and order. The two issues are totally entwined and when the left governs it has to tackle both,” he said in an interview.
According to one opinion poll, 85 per cent of Bologna’s people back the bearded, bespectacled Cofferati in his campaign.
But some Communist Party allies accuse him of playing populist politics and say he acts more like a hard-knuckled sheriff from one of the comic books he loves than a leftist mayor.
The stand-off is delighting centre-right opponents.
“What is happening here is a warning for the whole country,” says Galeazzo Bignami, who represents the rightwing National Alliance on the Bologna council.
“The centre-left is good at putting together coalitions to fight elections, but can’t put together a stable government.”
Centre-left leader Romano Prodi knows all about political instability. He was elected premier in 1996 but lost power in 1998 after Communist allies quit in a row over the budget.
Himself from Bologna, Prodi is trying to calm tensions behind the scenes, fearful that a leftist meltdown in his own backyard could damage his election chances in 2006.
At first sight, Bologna is an odd place for a row over law and order. It might have suffered Italy’s most deadly post-war massacre — a 1980 bomb attack by suspected rightwing extremists that killed 85 people — but is essentially safe and peaceful.
However, as in other Italian cities, the rapid increase in immigrants from the developing world is alarming residents.
Bologna’s population was some 374,000 at the end of 2004 of whom 25,000 were foreigners, 18 per cent up on 2003 levels. In the first 10 months of this year, the number of foreigners has risen to almost 30,000.
Many locals see the new arrivals as a threat, particularly against the backdrop of a sluggish economy. Aggressive car washers and riverside squats add to the siege mentality.
Cofferati says his initiatives are aimed at ending the degradation in which the immigrants live and eliminating abusive actions by a criminal minority. This, he hopes, will make ordinary Italians less hostile to their new neighbours.
Communist allies say he has picked the wrong fight and urge him to take aim at restrictive immigrant legislation introduced by Berlusconi, rather than use it to expel foreigners.
“The race laws in the United States would never have been overthrown if people hadn’t disobeyed them,” says Valerio Monteventi, who represents the Communists in the city council.
“You can’t be a leftwing mayor and say all laws have to be respected in the same fashion.”
Like many other locals, Monteventi suspects that the softly-spoken Cofferati has deliberately upped the ante to regain his national profile and perhaps push for a top job should the centre-left beat Berlusconi next year.
Cofferati denies any ulterior motives and dismisses suggestions he’d like to be interior minister.
“I am working for the benefit of Bologna and the Bolognesi. The issues are here, not in Rome,” he says.
“I do not want to be a minister. The only thing I want to do after being mayor is to run an opera house.”—Reuters