ROME — Stung by flagging popular support, Italy's Communist Party, the largest in the West, elected a new leader Tuesday.
The task of Achille Occhetto, a 52-year-old party veteran with a salt-and-pepper mustache and an upscale image, is to reinvigorate Italian communism in a prosperous country where it risks becoming irrelevant. Occhetto was confirmed as the party's secretary general by a vote of 278 to 3, the party announced.
Occhetto, a member of Parliament for 12 years, had been the party's deputy secretary. He replaces Alessandro Natta, 70, who resigned after the Communists' poor showing last month in local elections.
Addressing his supporters, Occhetto called for a unified party that would offer "clearer and more incisive opposition" to the coalition government of Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita.
"We must show that we are not just a party of opposition, but that we are a party that could direct the government," he said.
To modernize the party's image, Occhetto pledged to make its operations more open to its 1.2 million members.
The Communist Party is the second largest in Italy, but it has been excluded from national government since 1947 by its historic rival, the Christian Democratic Party. But there have been Communist governments in all the major Italian cities at one time or another.
A decade ago, the Communists received 34% of the vote in national elections. In last month's municipal elections, they received only 21.9%, a decline that alarmed party leaders and forced Natta to resign.
The dilemma, analysts say, is that Italy's unprecedented prosperity has robbed the party of its traditional issues. Italian workers no longer see themselves as the poor and oppressed proletariat in a struggling postwar society.
The decline in the Communist vote has been paralleled by a surge of smaller parties. The moderately left Socialists have taken some votes from the Communists, as have new parties like the environmentalist Greens. Last month the Socialists went from 14% to 18%, closing their gap with the Communists to the narrowest margin yet.
Seeking to broaden its appeal, the Communist Party is now as vociferous about such things as the need for cleaner air and less traffic in Rome as it is about the need to overturn a government decision to offer a new home for U.S. F-16 jet fighters being forced to leave Spain.
The Turin-born Occhetto, a party member since his youth, inherits a leadership that ranges from minority old-line Marxists to younger reformists who are Social Democrats in everything but name. One expert estimates that about a third of all Italian Communists consider themselves Marxist.
Occhetto's fellow Communists are impressed with his vigor and charisma, but it is not clear that he will be able to restore cohesion to his party while at the same time attracting new supporters.
"The next few months will be the essential testing ground for Occhetto," old-time party leader Giorgio Napolitano said. "We need greater clarity and candor."
Occhetto has been married three times, most recently to a fellow Communist three months ago. He is a dedicated weekend sailor, dabbles in gourmet cooking and has a country house in fashionable Tuscany. His second marriage, to a Somalian actress and singer, produced two sons, one named after Malcolm X, the Black Muslim, and the other after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution.