Slick face of neo-Fascism smooths path to power

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The Independent Online
A BITING wind whips in from the sea, tearing at the banners that read: 'Istria is Italian' and chilling the motley crowd gathered in Trieste's Piazza dell' Unita d'Italia. In their rapture they barely flinch. About 3,000 voices roar approval as the slim, bespectacled figure on the dais reaches the climax of his speech.

Slovenia, he thunders, 'must kneel before the Italian victims' massacred by Tito at the end of the Second World War if it wants to join the European Union. 'What happened to those Italians was a real genocide - 'ethnic cleansing' '. The crowd gives a roar of gratitude. This politician, at least, understands the betrayal felt by 300,000 Italians who lost everything when Italy surrendered the Istrian peninsula - their home - to Yugoslavia after the war.

The politician is Gianfranco Fini, leader of the neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). His remarks will anger Slovenia, engaged in delicate negotiations with Rome over compensation for the Italian 'exiles', and bring condemnation from the left. For Mr Fini, it is a price worth paying, to keep his credentials with the party faithful.

The rest of the speech is a lesson in pragmatism, intended for the outside world. Mr Fini has worked hard to drag his party from pariah status into power. He spends much of his time walking a tightrope between keeping the militants happy and reassuring the world that it has nothing to fear from the politicial heirs of Mussolini. It is a brilliant balancing act and it displays the political skill that lies behind the transformation of an unsavoury fringe party to one of government.

Earlier that day, addressing students in Rome, it was a different sort of Fini. '(The party) has broken with Fascism. It has chosen democracy. Fascism was not democracy it was a dictatorship,' he said. He attacked 'those imbeciles and criminals who in the name of some poorly understood right-wing ideology, espouse racism and xenophobia. Being a right-winger doesn't mean preaching the superiority of the race or other such rubbish.'

Mr Fini, impeccably polite and liked even by political enemies, is the acceptable face of the 'new right'. But he is reticent about how much Fascist baggage his party carries. The party is in the throes of changing its name to the National Alliance (AN), shedding the Fascist overtones of the past. Renewal appears afoot but is a slow process.

No militants have been expelled. Mr Fini seems anxious to avoid alienating the grassroots, many of them elderly activists who remember 'the golden days' of Fascism, before the regime was carried away by vainglory and brutality in 1938. The question is whether the new-look party is a Trojan Horse. The question has become urgent, since opinion polls put Mr Fini ahead of his coalition ally, the beleaguered Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, in the popularity stakes.

Rumours swirl around Rome of Europe's first neo- Fascist prime minister taking power, if Mr Berlusconi is brought down by corruption investigations.

Diplomats are sceptical. 'Although AN has been largely rehabilitated, the neo-Fascists are still loathed by many Italians. Fini as prime minister would split the country catastrophically. I can't believe that any of the other parties would be prepared to work with him and bear responsibility for that,' said one source.

The scars left by the two- year civil war fought as the Germans and Fascists retreated to the north between 1943 and 1945 have not healed. 'Neo-Fascism is basically a southern phenomenon,' one MP from Milan said. 'In the north where we had to live through the worst of the Nazi-Fascist occupation, we have never been tempted by nostalgia. If Fini took power, the country would split.'

This reasoning kept the old MSI on the margins of politics for years, before the system collapsed under the weight of its own corruption at the end of the Eighties. Mr Fini, who became leader in 1991, saw the way was clear for the MSI to pose as a 'clean alternative' - if it could broaden its appeal.

The party had had MPs for years. Perhaps the only reason the MSI was so clean was because the neo-Fascists were not invited into government.

After the watershed elections of this spring, the MSI appeared a politically mature party. Question marks over its commitment to democracy, especially with candidates such as Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of Il Duce, weighed more heavily abroad than at home.

For many Italians who might previously have voted Christian Democrat, AN was the only serious alternative on the right. Belief in strong central government and in tough law-and-order and immigration policies took priority over questions of latent Fascism. The only clearly nostalgic element was what Mr Fini called 'a strong sense of nationhood'.

There is plenty of homophobia and racism at a grassroots level. Mr Fini did a good job of distracting the electorate on to 'issues of national importance'. His declaration that the party had moved on to 'post-Fascism' convinced many. Enzo and Nevada Brandinelli, a middle-class Tuscan couple are typical of his new constituency. 'Fini is a moderate and responsible man. Compared to his coalition partners he certainly seems honest. We have moved on from Fascism. We cannot dwell on the past.'

The uncomfortable truth is that most of Mr Fini's voters cannot be dismissed as racists, reactionaries or yobs. He seems determined to bury the Fascist label - after all it is not a vote winner. The question remains whether the party's foot soldiers will tolerate it. Mr Fini's willingness to deal with militants is still untried.

At the end of the rally in Trieste, a triumphant Mr Fini descended the dais.

As he passed, burly youths with slicked-back hair gave him the Roman salute.

His aides stepped in quickly and stopped them. Mr Fini walked on, smiling, unaware, or choosing not to notice.

(Photograph omitted)