“Prodi, the Italian Kerensky?” was the intriguing headline of a full-page ad by a Christian-inspired group, Centro Culturale Lepanto (CCL), in two major Italian dailies, Il Giornale and Il Tempo, on May 14, 1996. In that manifesto, CCL president Roberto de Mattei, professor of modern history at the University of Cassino and one of the most vibrant conservative leaders in Italy, argued that, just as Kerensky paved the way for Lenin, the newly elected Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi would perform the same function for the Italian Lenin, Massimo D’Alema.

Romano Prodi, an economist and former public-holding company executive, led the left-of-center Olive Tree Alliance to victory in the April 1996 elections. Unrepentant communist Massimo D’Alema (who later boasted, “I am not a post-communist, I have been a leader of the Italian Communist Party and I am proud of it”) led the dominant stakeholder in the alliance, the PDS, now renamed simply the DS.

The Prodi victory was one of the perverse effects of an awkward electoral system which appears to have been conceived to make winners losers, and losers winners. In absolute terms, the opposition Freedom Front finished ahead of the Olive Tree, 16.48 million votes to 16.27 million. To control a majority in the lower house, Romano Prodi had to turn to the 35 MPs from the hard-line Marxist Communist Refoundation.

Prodi’s Popular Party, the left rump of the defunct Christian Democrat party, won just 6.8 percent of the vote, but Prodi contributed crucially to the Olive Tree victory. His ever-smiling, reassuring, safe image as a moderate Catholic and regular churchgoer proved the ideal decoy for his communist allies. He perfectly embodied the “fellow traveler” and “useful innocent (others would say “useful idiot”) whose role is to provide communist-dominated coalitions with the necessary façade of moderation to attract support.

But at least Prodi had to pass an electoral test. His successor, D’Alema, resorted to a boardroom coup which pushed him to the premiership in October 1998 with the support—or connivance—of two other Catholics: then-state president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and his former colleague Francesco Cossiga. While the former asked D’Alema to form a new government, the latter secured the indispensable support of his post-Christian Democrat Union for the Republic (UDR) party’s 29 MPs, including a number of turncoats who were elected on center-right opposition Freedom Front slates but jumped on the UDR bandwagon, lured by possible ministerial posts. Thus Massimo D’Alema’s shortcut to power confirmed the old axiom that, in Western countries, communists would never ascend to government leadership through a normal electoral process. So Roberto De Mattel’s prediction came true. But what De Mattei did not envision was that Prodi might also go down in history as the European Kerensky! On September 15, 1999, after a long and at times stormy debate, the European Union Parliament voted Prodi and the 14 men and five women on his team into office.

Some analysts believe that the appointment of Prodi as head of the European Commission is an exemplary application of a promoveatur ut amoveatur strategy: namely, the removal of a stumbling block by its promotion. In this case, the stumbling block was Prodi’s newly established “Donkey” party, the Democrats, who are in vengeful competition with D’Alema’s DS party. This could be partly true, but it is by no means the complete picture. After all, Prodi’s success in the role of the Italian Kerensky is his only real merit in the eyes of the international left. In all other respects, his two-year stint as Italy’s prime minister was a damp squib. His legacy is a mammoth public debt, rising unemployment, tax hikes, expanding impoverishment, wild immigration, and rampant crime. According to the national statistics agency Istat, Italy’s economy grew 1.4 percent in 1998, the slowest of any European country. Italy has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union; among youth under 25, it has reached a record 32.1 percent. Under Massimo D’Alema, the situation has been no better; does history offer any precedent of a communist head of government successfully healing the economic woes of his country?

Prodi was part of the old DC nomenklatura, which was swept away by anticorruption investigations. Within this nomenklatura, he held top political and economic positions, appointments which were rewards for party affiliation and subservience.

Prodi’s unanimous election—or unelected appointment—by the 15 E.U. governments, 13 of which are in socialist hands, was puzzling. A notable contrast to this chorus of approval was a series of investigative reports last year in the Daily Telegraph on Prodi’s judicial misfortunes. The first was significantly entitled “Criminal enquiries that cast a cloud over the past of Europe’s Mr. Clean.” In its editorial on May 4, the paper reported that Prodi had been the subject of two criminal investigations, both revolving around allegations of cronyism, abuse of office, and conflicts of interest, more or less the crimes that brought down the last E.U. Commission. “It is important to stress that Mr. Prodi has not been found guilty of breaking the law,” the editorial said. ‘Tet, as we reveal today, the cases leave several unanswered questions that the Italian judiciary, mindful perhaps of Mr. Prodi’s position, has been reluctant to probe. When Mr. Prodi was simply an Italian politician, this was none of our business; but now that he aspires to high European office, it is.”

Prodi—Mr. Clean—responded to these attacks the following day by distributing copies of the Rome court judgment from 1996 that cleared him of the charges that he had acted unlawfully in the privatization of a business when he was head of the state holding company IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale). In an editorial on May 6, the Daily Telegraph insisted that Prodi’s defense was not good enough “to lay the matter to rest.” The paper then disclosed that Romano Prodi had been placed under investigation at least four times on different charges. (Not bad for somebody who promised “total honesty and transparency” in the running of the E.U. Commission!) He was acquitted every time, the Telegraph noted, and probably rightly so, but the paper recommended that the European Union set up its own commission of inquiry into his business past in order to reach an independent conclusion. After all, why should Europe be satisfied with verdicts handed down by Italian magistrates?

The Telegraph pointed out that “the criminal justice system has frequently been misused in Italy to settle political scores. But this does not appear to have been the case with Prodi.” Massimo Pini, former head of privatization at IRI, was quoted in the conservative daily as saying: “He was never prosecuted with the same harshness as others.”

The British paper is not alone in questioning the evenhandedness of the Italian judiciary with regard to the Tangentopoli anti-corruption crusade, which was spearheaded by a Milan-based team of magistrates referred to as the Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) pool. U.S. foreign-policy expert Stanton Burnett wrote in his book. The Italian Guillotine, that the Clean Hands anti-corruption investigation was a political revolution which used the judiciary to get rid of moderate parties (the Christian Democrats first) in order to clear the way for a communist bloc to take over. (Incidentally, for having reported Burnett’s opinion in an interview in Italy’s major opposition paper Il Giornale, journalist Stefano Zurlo was sued by two judges who served in the Mani Pulite.) Burnett’s book has been released in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, but despite its subject, no Italian publisher will touch it.

If Burnett’s thesis is mistaken, why have the communists and their left-wing Christian Democrat confreres opposed the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the Tangentopoli investigations? Il Giornale speculates that such a commission would have unearthed the “omissions, violence and falsehoods of a great deal of probes which, for them to remain legitimate, had to be confined to the darkness of prosecutors’ offices.” More recently, Il Giornale reported the opinion of Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who believes that the Clean Hands investigation was a ploy masterminded by the Italian communists to divert public attention from disclosures of their funding by Moscow. “Clean Hands has helped the Italian communists . . . to ascend to power,” he claimed.

If Bukovsky is correct, it would also explain why the present leader of the opposition in Italy’s parliament, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, is enduring prosecutions (which smack of persecutions) on the grounds that, as head of his companies, “he was not in a position not to know” what his subordinates were doing — allegedly committing financial crimes to facilitate their business operations. But the same concept did not apply to Communist Party leaders and their allies, including Prodi, whose cases were dismissed for the opposite reason: Since they were unaware of what their subordinates were doing, they could not be held responsible. Prodi may well have been saved on purpose, in anticipation of his possible role as an Italian Kerensky in broad communist-dominated coalitions.

Lenin himself was the theorist of these coalitions, or “united fronts,” as a basic element of the Marxist strategy for seizing power. Without an alliance with noncommunists, he believed, communism cannot be built. Lenin did not disdain even the most fickle allies, however “temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional” they might be. And this “applies equally to the period before and after the proletariat has won political power.”

Be that as it may, Prodi appears to have embraced his new role with the utmost zeal, despite an unexpected hurdle: Following the European elections of June 13, 1999, the Christian-inspired center-right EPP (European People’s Party) is, for the first time, in a dominant position, with 233 seats out of 626, compared to 180 seats for the ESP (the socialist party). This situation is not reflected in the new commission, which serves as the E.U. executive. In the words of veteran leftist MEP Glyn Ford, “it will be a red executive. For the first time, the left will have a majority.” The EPP has already decried as a “myth” Romano Prodi’s claim that his 20-person team is politically balanced: It contains only six members of the EPP’s political family. Moreover, the EPP’s German deputies were particularly irked by a generous concession to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder: Germany’s two commissioners both come from his socialist-led government, despite the unwritten rule that one candidate should be named by the opposition. This shortchanging is all the more glaring in the wake of what Schroeder himself termed the “massive election defeat” of his governing coalition in the recent European election. The German conservative opposition CDU-CSU won almost 50 percent of the European vote and is the major party in the E.U. parliament with 53 MEPS, but it has no say in the E.U. commission!

The EPP’s British, Spanish, and Greek deputies are increasingly suspicious of Prodi. His leftist bias has become all too evident, to the point that his Donkey-Democrats party has joined the Liberal-Democrat caucus rather than the EPP’s. No less disquieting are his political associates: mayors like Rome’s Francesco Rutelli and Venice’s Massimo Cacciari, and former anti-corruption prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro. Rutelli, a former member of Italy’s Radical Party, is a staunch supporter of free divorce, abortion, and drugs; Cacciari is an ultra-Marxist philosopher whose books promote a violence-fueled chaos as a means to “regenerate” society; and Di Pietro, whose sudden resignation from the judiciary was never fully clarified, is a former leader of the “Clean Hands” pool, who claims to be prepared to eradicate corruption under an E.U. mandate.

What these people have in common with Prodi’s much-wanted commitment to Christian values remains a mystery. No less of a mystery is how he hopes to “revive the Christian soul of Europe”—the basic message of his latest book—by playing into the hands of those whose primary object has always been to destroy it once and for all.