Italian general elections, probable in the summer or autumn, will see a mild-mannered economics professor from Bologna pitted against the media-might of right-wing television tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Romano Prodi, 55, professor of industrial economics at the University of Bologna, is now the Great White Hope of Italy's moderate left and liberal centre.
Professor Prodi is the candidate of a new alliance of Catholics, left-wingers and liberals which challenges Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia movement, the avowedly transformed neofascist party, Alleanza Nazionale, and a few right-wing Catholics.
One of the basic tenets of Professor Prodi's platform is that Italy must invest in the future by spending on schools, universities and research if it wants to remain a first-rank nation. "A little more money needs to be spent on education," he told The THES. "But above all the money we now spend must be spent better. There is an enormous waste of money and manpower." He added: "We must not think of our future, but the future of our children. Long-term investments are much more important than short-term policies that may give an result immediately but cannot equip the nation or future generations."
He wants to raise the school-leaving age from 14 to 16 and then to 18. But he is aware that "early school-leaving in Italy does not go along with poverty. Some of the richest areas, around Brescia and Verona for example, have the highest proportion of drop-outs. There is so much money around that young people go into the family business or open a travel agency rather than finishing school and going to university".
Gently ironic, soft-spoken and wearing unfashionably heavy glassas, Professor Prodi appears the antithesis of the confident, immaculately-dressed Mr Berlusconi. Professor Prodi has an uncanny way of looking rumpled even when he is not.
Asked recently if he had someone taking care of his image, he replied: "No, I believe that by age 30 one should have come to terms with one's face."
His communication style is also in contrast with Mr Berlusconi's. He speaks quietly and explains his thoughts point by point. The media mogul tends to hammer repeated political slogans. Many of Professor Prodi's supporters fear he may not come across strongly on television.
His homely image may be calculated, since he is far from naive politically. In the past he has been repeatedly "borrowed" from his university for high-level jobs in the public sector, notably his salvage of the mammoth state holding company IRI in 1982-1989 and a brief stint as minister for industry in 1978/1979. In this sense he is an apparatchik of the old regime, the old party system discredited by corruption scandals in the early 1990s. But he is untainted and was always one of the most outspoken critics of the system.
In the fragmented world of Italian politics professor Prodi must draw support from a variety of directions. As a left-wing Catholic he is acceptable to the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communist Party which for the past 20 years has moved towards moderate social democracy. As an economist he is also supported by a plethora of small parties which are best described as middle-of-the-road, non-Catholic and non-communist. He should also be supported by the Lega Nord, until recently an ally of Forza Italia.