Some questions for Mr Fini

As the suave young leader of Italy's National Alliance seeks to assert his democratic credentials in London today, his actions speak eloquently of the party's Fascist past, cautions Paul Ginsborg
Last month the Italian far right announced the beginning of a new phase in its history. The flag of the old neo-Fascist party, the MSI, was pulled down and that of the National Alliance (Alleanza Nazionale) took its place. Gianfranco Fini, the young, intelligent and suave leader of both the old grouping and the new, announced that the National Alliance would seek a liberal-democratic road in Italian politics. A motion was passed recognising the historic role of anti-Fascism in restoring democracy to Italy. Amid much emotion, and the approval of the Duce's granddaughter, Italian Fascism was officially buried.

Any move that leads to the reinforcement of democracy in Italy can only be welcomed, and the prospect of the far right (13.5 per cent of the vote at the last election) coming in from the cold and working hard to improve democratic institutions is obviously a heartening one. However, grave doubts exist as to whether this scenario, which is the one Mr Fini would like the world to believe, in fact corresponds to reality. Nor is the problem simply a question, as many commentators have suggested, of the new party slowly ridding itself of its past; of a process as yet incomplete, but which has begun well.

Rather, there is considerable evidence to show that the essential features of the National Alliance - its structure, ideology and strategy - are far from most notions of democracy.

In the first place, the National Alliance is, in its internal structures, a much less democratic party than its neo-Fascist predecessor. The statute of the new party gives unprecedented power to the president, Mr Fini himself. He chooses half of the 500 delegates to the party conference, nominates the 100 members of the directive committee, and "constitutes" the 25 members of the executive.

Of course, as both British and Italian experiences teach us, modern political parties are very rarely models of democracy. However, the statute of the National Alliance has almost nothing to do with democracy at all. As the historian Nicola Tranfaglia has pointed out, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the 1938 constitution of the Fascist party. Gianfranco Fini is a dictator within his own party, an honour he shares with his closest ally, Silvio Berlusconi.

The National Alliance's performance while in power in 1994 was not a distinguished one. It was characterised principally by the aping of one of the worst features of the Christian Democrats' long reign - the "occupation" of the state. Mr Fini's troops soon showed that they were going to grab as many important posts as they could. Nowhere was this more evident than in the key sector of Post and Telecommunications, a ministry with much patronage to dispense and held by Pinuccio Tatarella, one of Fini's closest colleagues.

Telemontecarlo, the principal rival to Silvio Berlusconi's commercial channels, waited in vain for Tatarella's ministry to grant it the frequencies that would give it nationwide coverage. Meanwhile, Mr Fini's biographer became director of all radio programmes in the state-owned RAI. There was nothing particularly new in all this; it was just time-honoured clientelism with a few new faces.

Where the National Alliance was more innovative, and more sinister, was in its repeated attacks on those areas of the Italian state that had fought hard for a measure of autonomy over the previous decades. The Bank of Italy under Antonio Fazio came under repeated fire, as did the Superior Council of Magistrates, which has consistently backed the anti-corruption pool of judges in Milan.

Both institutions were accused of being anti-government and too left wing (this last is a truly strange charge to be levelled at the Bank of Italy). If the independence of these judicial and financial bodies were to disappear, so, too, would the few checks upon the executive's power in Italy. The results for democracy would be grave.

Other doubts, too, are worth mentioning. At the founding congress of the National Alliance, the most popular books were not the classics of liberal democracy, but those of the anti-democratic and racist European right. Julius Evola, a cult figure for the MSI, who in 1938 distinguished himself for his anti-Semitic campaigning and also wrote a preface to the Protocols of Zion, was among those who sold best. Behind this fact lies a fundamental weakness: the far right in Italy has no democratic culture to speak of, and its history is founded on the destruction of liberalism.

In international affairs, Mr Fini is as yet uncertain. A return to Mussolini's Mediterranean and African expansionism is inconceivable. On the other hand, the National Alliance has made repeated noises about renegotiating Italian borders, and as soon as it came to power in 1994 an ugly row began with Slovenia. As for Europe, there are few signs that the members of the National Alliance are enthusiastic, or would like to see Italy more closely bound. Integration means regulation, which ill-corresponds with Fini's and Berlusconi's happy intertwining of private interests with thestate sector.

Finally, a glimpse into the future. Forza Italia and the National Alliance are now locked into an iron partnership, with the Fininvest lawyer Cesare Previti - an ex-Fascist - as its lynch pin. These two parties have a very good chance of winning the next national elections, probably scheduled for October of this year. What then for Italy?

The formal rules of democracy will remain untouched, but the constitution will be changed, parliament will be demoted, and an overstrong presidential figure will emerge. Independent elements within the Italian state, such as the reforming magistrates, will be muzzled, and the relative autonomy of the Bank of Italy will disappear. Public and private television will become the sites of unashamed political propaganda. Above all, the country will be more deeply divided than at any time since the 1950s. For all their smooth exteriors, neither Fini nor Berlusconi are consensus builders. This means trouble, not only within Italy but without, for the public debt cannot be reduced without a clear social strategy.

As was evident last November, a socially unjust division of the economic burden, which penalises dependent workers and privileges the self-employed, will meet with the stiffest opposition from the trade unions and rekindle Italy's considerable labour traditions. A divided Italy that cannot reduce its public debt is not a good bet for Europe.

Of course, this could all be alarmist left-wing hogwash. Perhaps Gianfranco Fini really intends to leave the Bank of Italy alone. Perhaps Silvio Berlusconi intends to sell his television channels and introduce fair rules for mass communications in Italy. Perhaps they will both encourage the magistrates to go on rooting out corruption, clientelism and the Mafia. Perhaps Italian democracy, not a grand old lady but not without her merits, is safe in their hands. In which case I will be the first to cheer, and promise to eat my hat.

Paul Ginsborg is the author of `A History of Contemporary Italy' (Penguin).