Italy's far right basks in new populist image

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Raising his fingers in a V for Victory sign, Italy's far-right leader Gianfranco Fini emerged triumphant yesterday from a five-day congress in which he broke definitively with neo-Fascism and proclaimed his National Alliance party the standard-bea rer ofa new populist right that was heading inexorably for power.

"Today's right is no longer a synonym for nostalgia, but of great innovation and change," Mr Fini said to more than 2,000 cheering congress delegates in the central Italian spa town of Fiuggi. "This historical turning-point for the National Alliance willbe solemnly blessed by our people as soon as they can express themselves at the ballot box."

The 43-year-old Mr Fini not only swept along a majority of his old neo-Fascist party, the MSI, but also won the endorsement of other right-wing and centrist politicians, including Silvio Berlusconi, the short-lived prime minister whose Forza Italia movement governed in coalition with the National Alliance.

A measure of the new respectability Mr Fini has won was the presence of an official delegation from the PDS, the main party on the Italian left, which in its previous Communist incarnation was at odds with Mr Fini's MSI.

Members of the centrist Christian Democrat Popular Party were also present, and Mr Fini threw down a direct challenge to them to join his crusade for a new Italy that would break with the corruption and party squabbling of the past.

Despite persisting doubts about his unsavoury friends and iconoclastic attitude to state institutions, Mr Fini now stands a good chance of eclipsing Mr Berlusconi and heading a forceful right wing into the fresh parliamentary elections he hopes will takeplace in June.

The most radical faction of the old MSI, led by the diehard neo-Fascist Pino Rauti, chose not to join the National Alliance at all - a decision which can only contribute to Mr Fini's clean image and growing popularity in opinion polls, even if many politicians on the centre-left still consider him "illiberal and dangerous".

The final document voted in by the congress explicitly rejected totalitarianism of all kinds in favour of "freedom, justice and democracy". It called for a more direct role for the electorate, a reference to the Alliance's call for plebiscites to select the prime minister and president. The left opposes such plebiscites, arguing that they threaten Italy's tradition of pluralism by giving too much power to one political block.

One propaganda coup of the conference was the enthusiastic participation of Dacia Valent, one of the country's leading anti-racist campaigners and a former Communist member of the European parliament. Ms Valent praised the Alliance's explicit condemnation of racism and intolerance, saying she was fed up with the left's equivocal attitudes.