'Acceptable face' of fascism may cost Berlusconi victory

Italy's only woman candidate for PM emerges as the revelation of the election campaign, as she attacks the media magnate's chauvinism head on

The sensation of Italy's election campaign has been a glamorous 46-year-old divorcee with long, shapely legs, a piercing gaze, a fine Italian temper and the guts to say to Silvio Berlusconi: "You're not having me."

There is no chance she will become Italy's next prime minister; if her small, extreme, new-minted party manages to win seats in both houses of parliament it will be remarkable. But commentators on both sides agree that Daniela Santanche, the only woman candidate for prime minister, has been the revelation of an election which finishes in polling today and tomorrow.

Ms Santanche is the figurehead of La Destra, meaning the right, campaigning on the old fascist trinity of God, Fatherland and Family. The party's symbol is the old neo-fascist tricolour flame. It was founded by a nucleus of post-fascist believers after the mainstream heirs of fascism, the National Alliance, amalgamated with Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia to form the People of Liberty party.

The hard-right content of La Destra's programme is familiar enough: the attacks on immigrants; the evocation of family values; the assault on privilege and banks' profits. But what was new and startling was Ms Santanche's decision to challenge Mr Berlusconi's male chauvinist appeal head on.

Mr Berlusconi, whose lead in opinion polls appears to have shrunk in the last phase of the campaign (polls are banned in the last two weeks before voting), has long revelled in his macho image, the sultan in his harem surrounded by curvaceous young lovelies, some of whom might end up among the ranks of his MPs, but not in government. Despite what has happened to the status of women elsewhere in Europe – the Spanish Prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's new government has a majority of women ministers – for Berlusconi, women belong in the bedroom or the kitchen.

His demeaning remarks about them are the stuff of legend. "The left has no taste in women," he mocked. "Ours are much more beautiful." "Ladies," he said at a recent campaign meeting, "I have a mission for you on election day: cook! Sweet and exquisite things, please. Bring them to the polling station to be examined. The boldest can try making a tart, the most skilful, profiteroles."

Far from being a trivial eccentricity, Mr Berlusconi's compulsion to dominate and belittle is at the heart of his political success. The reason his centre-right coalition has had much less trouble with splitters and dissenters than the centre-left is simple: with his billions he has for years bankrolled his main ally, the secessionist Northern League. This time around he has done the same for the National Alliance, putting several of its leaders on his payroll as the price for absorbing their party and erasing its identity. The National Alliance's leader, Gianfranco Fini, has bet his party's existence on his hopes of stepping into Mr Berlusconi's shoes.

Ms Santanche charges her ex-colleagues with prostituting themselves for Mr Berlusconi's favours. In a television encounter with the equally tempestuous Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of Il Duce and one of the right-wingers who has gone along with Mr Berlusconi, Ms Santanche told women viewers: "Don't give your vote to Berlusconi, he sees us only horizontally, never vertically." She accused la Mussolini of being "Berlusconi's showgirl". "Your grandfather must be spinning in his grave," she spat.

For a man like Mr Berlusconi, as priapic as a character in an Aristophanes farce, Ms Santanche was too gorgeous to be ignored. "People will vote for la Santanche because she is a beautiful babe," he said, "without realising that by doing so they will give votes to someone who is certainly not a beautiful babe [his centre-left opponent], Walter Veltroni."

It's the fate of the lion in winter: all his billions, all his television channels, cannot rescue him from the mockery that rains down on the aged lecher, his powers visibly waning.

While his rival, Mr Veltroni, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, has soberly criss-crossed the country, denouncing the Mafia and calling for Italy to turn over a new leaf, Mr Berlusconi has addressed small, ageing crowds, many bussed in to fill the seats, saying "anything that comes into his head", as one commentator put it, and bemoaning his fate. The magic has deserted him. But it took the flashing eyes of a beautiful woman to spell out the extent of his humiliation.

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