Italian right knocked off course

The leaders of the National Alliance, Italy's reformed neo-fascist party, will be licking some painful wounds today when they meet to confront the harsh reality of last Sunday's election: not only that they lost, in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's more moderate Forza Italia movement, but that their hopes of becoming the natural party of the mainstream right have suffered a major, if not fatal, blow.

Two years after the party came out of the wilderness and into government in Mr Berlusconi's shortlived administration, it is finding the path to respectability far tougher than it anticipated. Its leader, Gianfranco Fini, has won a reputation as the wiliest politician in Italy, but he failed to translate that into the breakthrough he was looking for. The National Alliance scored 15 per cent - an improvement of just 1.5 points on 1994, when the party was still avowedly fascist, and well short of the 20 per cent that opinion polls were forecasting.

It was Mr Fini who provoked Sunday's election, against the will of Mr Berlusconi and the rest of the centre-right, by pulling out of all-party talks on constitutional reform in February. Clearly, he was calculating on either a snap victory for the centre-right, or at least a leap for his party to overtake Mr Berlusconi and transform the neo-fascists into an Italian version of Jacques Chirac's Gaullist movement in France.

He was wrong on both counts. Most disappointing for his modernisation drive was the fact that the diehard fascists in his movement did well - for example Teodoro Buontempo, from the southern suburbs of Rome - while the so-called moderate candidates close to Mr Fini only scraped into parliament.

Mr Fini's number three, a former streetfighter called Maurizio Gasparri, lost in his Rome constituency and had to be "fished back" in the part of the election decided by proportional representation.

The National Alliance leader was unrepentant for the electoral slaughter in his own ranks, saying he regretted nothing. "They'll say it was my fault we lost because I wanted to go the polls. It will become a national sport, but there are no grounds to suggest such a thing," he said. Instead Mr Fini turned his anger on his old rival in the neo-fascist movement, Pino Rauti, who refused to join him at last year's congress that broke with the blackshirt past, and put up opposing candidates in 40 constituencies.

Mr Rauti's party split the right-wing vote in several marginal seats, including the historic centre of Rome.

Criticism of Mr Fini has been particularly strong in the moderate, Catholic wing of the centre-right, where one unsuccessful candidate, the former labour minister Clemente Mastella, blamed his defeat in Benevento, near Naples, on a Fini-inspired conspiracy. In similar vein one of Mr Berlusconi's candidates, the lawyer Carlo Taormina, said he lost his seat in Rome because the National Alliance faithful did not back him.

Discontent in the ranks of the centre-right is growing by the day, and it is probably only a matter of time before the first rifts emerge. Mr Berlusconi has insisted he will remain leader of the opposition, but few believe he has either the will or the authority to take the centre-right into the next general election.

Yesterday the former prime minister was suggesting thousands of his sides' votes were fraudulently discounted as spoiled ballots. The accusation was ignored by the prime minister-designate, Romano Prodi, who vowed to keep his government in office for the full five years.