That they have arrived there, and that democracy is clearly not in danger, is to the considerable personal credit of Gianfranco Fini, the young, bespectacled leader of what is now called the National Alliance, who almost single-handedly has made the far right respectable again.
In the half-century since the fall of Fascism, the neo-Fascists of what was long known as the Movimento Sociale Italiano were the untouchables of Italian politics. They were regarded as a bunch of incorrigible nostalgics, spoilt idle brats or jackbooted thugs. No political party would have anything to do with them and it was not done to sympathise with them.
Even now there are members who have only recently, and with difficulty, been persuaded not to wear black shirts, the mark of Benito Mussolini's squadristi. There are supporters, young ones in particular, who are fond of making the stiff-armed Fascist salute, who beat up immigrants and hate the Jews. These and other hardliners, as Mr Fini knows only too well, are keeping a low profile as long as he is riding high and the party might come to power. The moment he puts a foot wrong, they will be back.
Mr Fini has managed to bridge the gap between the MSI and respectable political society. He does not repudiate Fascism, but argues it must be seen in its historic context. It is all water under the bridge now, he says, and only democratic methods are thinkable nowadays.
He is not a racist and, in a highly symbolic move, made a pilgrimage to the Ardeatine caves outside Rome last year, where 335 people were massacred during the war by the Germans as a reprisal for an attack by partisans against a German patrol. It was a quiet, private visit, without photographers or publicity, but he was the first neo-Fascist leader to make it.
Last year the MSI became the National Alliance, absorbing also right-wingers who had spun off from the disintegrating Christian Democrats, and adopted a more Gaullist image. But the new face of the far right remained the face of Mr Fini. He was everywhere, on television, in the newspapers, talking articulately and persuasively, never joining in the mud-slinging or name-calling.
The only other figure in the public eye was Alessandra Mussolini, the blonde, glamorous granddaughter of the dictator who goes down well on television and in the narrow alleys of old Naples but is not an important political factor in the party.Reuse content