Dark forces lurk in brave new Italy: Victory of the right means hands off the Mafia and a welcome for Berlusconi's cake-and-circus values

ITALY'S Second Republic has been born under the sign of an ascendant right. With an overwhelming victory for the coalition of southern neo-Fascists and northern federalists, presided over by Silvio Berlusconi, it seems almost certain that when parliament is reconvened on 15 April, Italy will be given the first government in Europe to contain neo-Fascist ministers since the Second World War. Tired of grappling with its moral monsters of corruption and collusion with the Mafia, Italy has decided to turn a new page.

The great irony is that, in their haste to find a quick fix, voters in many parts of the country have rejected the men who did most to clean up public life and fight the Mafia. Instead they have brought into power representatives of the dark old order, dressed in the clothes of the new. They are hidden, for now, behind the glitzy public face of the brave new Italy.

It was all predicted with eerie accuracy by the old master of cinema, Federico Fellini, in 1985. His film Ginger and Fred tells the story of a pair of ageing dancers who impersonate Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. They perform in a crass cabaret on a game-show run by one of the private channels. The proceedings descend into cruel burlesque as the show's compere and his line-up of bimbos continually break off to plug consumer products. Ghastly jingles promoting salami and cakes accelerate into a frenetic litany. At the end, Fred collapses; there is no place in the new order for his gentleness.

The film is a scathing attack on the values disseminated by the private television circuses that Fellini so loathed. Less than 10 years later the country has chosen as its leader a man who has built his private fortune and his electoral success on those very values. The business community has lined up behind him and the prospect of strong government, increased competitiveness and cuts in public spending and taxes.

That will be possible only if Mr Berlusconi can keep his antagonistic allies on the leash. Strains in the coalition, however, between the federalist and Thatcherite Northern League, and the centralist and dirigiste neo-Fascists of Alleanza Nazionale, cast doubt over the stability of any government they may form. The federalism demanded by the League's Umberto Bossi in return for his party's support is essentially irreconcilable with the neo-Fascists' demands for a strong central government and continued help for the South. 'This alliance is crazy - like the whole country at the moment,' says Guido Passalacqua, a journalist who has followed the fortunes of the Northern League since its inception. 'The partners are like snakes, entwined together but striking at each other continually.

'The League and Mr Berlusconi represent a necessity for the most economically powerful part of the country. They represent change and economic deregulation. A swathe of Italy thinks like this. Gianfranco Fini (the neo-Fascist leader) satisfies a nostalgia for order. He remains part of the old system.'

As Mr Passalacqua says, there are concrete social reasons for the right's landslide victory. Like the Conservative victories over the past 15 years in Britain, the collapse of heavy industry, particularly in the north of the country, has played its part in limiting the left's natural constituency.

Ultimately, however, the right won because its figurehead, Mr Berlusconi, made brilliant use of his formidable marketing skills. He sold the Italians a Fellini-esque dream of wealth and good living in the form of Forza Italia, his new political party, advertised, like a luxury product, on his private channels, endorsed by his presenters and starlets.

Most of his rivals from the left and centre were linked in the public consciousness with the national trauma of the corruption scandals that brought down the old regime. Ironically they have done much more to purge the system than Mr Berlusconi, yet there was no one in their ranks able to sell a dream.

Nowhere was the desire for a quick fix more evident than in Sicily's election returns. There the murders almost two years ago of the much-loved anti-Mafia investigators Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino turned public opinion against Cosa Nostra as never before.

A new will, political and popular, to fight organised crime had led to a flurry of arrests of top bosses. The jewel in the crown was the capture of Toto Riina, Capo di Tutti i Capi - known as 'the beast'. Leoluca Orlando, a former Christian Democrat who founded his own anti-Mafia party, La Rete (The Network), became a folk hero. His party had snatched seats from the discredited Christian Democrats throughout the island.

Only four months ago, Mr Orlando was elected mayor of Palermo with more than 75 per cent of the vote. Then, in perhaps the biggest upset in last week's election, Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale all but swept the board, taking 37 seats in the lower house, leaving only four to the left-wing alliance, which included La Rete.

Attilio Bolzoni, a Sicilian journalist, says that, like Italians on the mainland, Sicilians have already tired of carrying on the moral crusade of change. 'There is a great desire for normality in Palermo. People have tired very quickly of what they call the excesses of the anti-Mafia brigade.'

The man who defeated Antonino Caponnetto, the standard-bearer of the judiciary's war against the Mafia, and the mentor of Falcone and Borsellino, in Palermo, is a neo- Fascist, Guido Lo Porto. He is a veteran of six legislatures. As if the message were not already clear, he declared after the vote: 'Yes, this is a return to normality. There's no more danger of getting embroiled in the investigations so beloved of Mr Orlando.'

In a Palermo sub-district, the left's candidate was beaten by one Francesco Cascio. Mr Cascio's father was a leading supporter of Salvo Lima, the go-between for the disgraced former Christian Democrat prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, in his murderous dealings with Cosa Nostra. In the senatorial race, the well-known anti- Mafia campaigner, Carmine Mancuso, was defeated by Forza Italia's candidate, Saverio Porcari, a political outsider, who was a member of the notorious P2 Masonic Lodge.

Before the election Forza Italia cried foul when the head of the anti-Mafia commission, Luciano Violante, said he believed that the Mafia had understood which way the political wind was blowing, and had decided to allocate the votes it controlled to Forza Italia.

Mr Violante, also standing as a candidate for the left in northern Italy, was forced to resign over his remarks - but events appear to have borne him out.

On the mainland, too, the 'new right' has allowed its mask to slip. The neo-Fascists' leader, Mr Fini, with his glasses and air of a young professor, could not be further from the textbook neo-Fascist. Indeed, during the election campaign he shunned the word fastidiously. Yet this shrewd operator treads a fine line between reassuring the public and throwing morsels of ideology to his rank and file. On Friday, Mr Fini's mask slipped when he sang the praises of Mussolini to La Stampa. Mr Berlusconi, he said, would have his job cut out to match the achievements of Mussolini. On Monday night, when the votes were in the bag, young neo-Fascist bloods deliriously gave the fascist salute and fought police in central Rome.

Modern Italy's power to absorb and defuse the radical is legendary, but there is a growing sense of unease among the vulnerable. A spokeswoman for the Forum of Foreigners in Italy, Loretta Caponi, said yesterday: 'Everything could become more difficult now. We have to hope that Berlusconi will exercise a moderating influence on his more intolerant allies.'

While Mr Berlusconi parades as the champion of the middle ground, he has his scores to settle. The judiciary, which he accused of being part of a Communist plot against him, is bracing itself for an assault. And some fear that the 'clean hands' corruption investigations, one of whose victims is Mr Berlusconi's brother Paolo, will be quietly blocked.

Under the make-up, the face of the new is as ugly as that of the old.

Mr Bossi said yesterday the job of prime minister should rotate between the Northern League and Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia but made no mention of Mr Fini, Reuter reports.

(Photograph omitted)