On the posters, with his jacket slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, and on television, he looks highly respectable, appealing and reassuring - and that way Gianfranco Fini, leader of Italy's extreme right-wing neo-Fascist party may next week be mayor of Rome. The run-off between Mr Fini and his Green left-wing opponent, Francesco Rutelli, in the second round of the municipal elections on Sunday, is going to be extremely close. According to the latest poll, published yesterday, Mr Rutelli is leading by 53.5 per cent to Mr Fini's 46.5 per cent. But when neo-Fascists are concerned polling is tricky because some people hide the truth: Italy's top pollsters greatly overestimated Mr Rutelli's lead in the first round on 21 November.
Mr Fini has made a career out of being what the Italians call 'neo-Fascism in a double- breasted suit'. It is the respectable face of neo-Fascism, the other being its black leather- clad, skin-headed, immigrant- baiting thugs. 'Fascism,' he claims, 'has a tradition of honesty, correctness and good government'. Mr Fini has never beaten anyone up, shaved his head or, as far as is known, worn a black shirt like one of his close associates has done for years. But he regards Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator, as 'the greatest figure in world history', refuses to repudiate Fascist ideas and has been known to make the stiff- armed Fascist salute.
He is the heir of many thousands of votes left homeless after the implosion of the Christian Democrats, the party that has dominated Rome since the war. They come from huge sections of the population who flourished on the old habits of corruption and patronage - such as the builders who made vast fortunes by ringing the city with a concrete jungle, buying construction licences with huge bribes or building without any at all. Or the bureaucrats who fear losing their privileges and cushy jobs.
Flatly opposed to divorce and abortion, he will reap votes from ultra-Catholics, such as one group that has been circulating pamphlets attacking Mr Rutelli as the 'King of Abortion, borne on the shoulders of Communists, responsible for the evil culture that surrounds us'.
Many more, and much bigger, Catholic organisations, it must be said, have opted for Mr Rutelli while Rome's Cardinal Camillo Ruini, whose favoured candidate got fewer votes than a porno-star in the first round, has had to follow the example of more modern colleagues and tell the faithful to vote 'according to their conscience'.
Even more desirable in the son-in-law stakes Mr Rutelli appeared far ahead of all rivals until 21 November. Handsome, likeable and much more affable he has been working much longer and harder to raise support. While Mr Fini says he knows the city's immense problems, Mr Rutelli is more convincing. He knows the city like the bank of his hand, can spout statistics at the drop of a hat and plans to be a full-time mayor, while Mr Fini would divide his time.
Mr Rutelli, 39, a Radical turned Green, was never a communist but is unacceptable to many non-extreme conservatives because he is supported by the now-moderate former communists, the Democratic Party of the Left. But he has been publicly endorsed by a vast array of stars and intellectuals. Mr Fini's rather fewer public supporters include Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul, and the old aristocracy.Reuse content