Leading article: The demons of the far right raise their heads again

Under normal circumstances, 15 years of rule by a single party in a major European city would be more than enough. But in a democracy, there is always the awkward question of whether the alternative would be any better. And in Rome, the alternative that was on offer was considerably worse.

Gianni Alemanno's surprise victory over Francesco Rutelli in the Italian capital's mayoral elections yesterday is not a welcome shift in power, despite the extended domination of Mr Rutelli's centre-left administration over Roman politics in recent years.

On the face of it, Mr Alemanno does not cut such a controversial figure. He represents the National Alliance, a partner in Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition, which was elected to power earlier this month. And Mr Alemanno has experience of office, having served as agriculture minister in Mr Berlusconi's previous administration. Yet dig deeper and one discovers a very unattractive past. Mr Alemanno was a former youth leader of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, during which time he was arrested for assaulting a young leftist and for throwing Molotov cocktails at opponents. The new mayor argues that such extremism is in the past; but that has not has not stopped him courting the far right pretty transparently in recent weeks.

This campaign was dominated by fears of crime and immigration, with two recent rapes being blamed on immigrants (although with scant evidence). Yet rather than calming public passions, Mr Alemanno sought to exploit them. He promised to "crack down" on migrants and accused the centre-left administration of giving priority to film festivals over crime prevention.

The leader of Mr Alemanno's party, Gianfranco Fini, visited Rome to support the campaign. His contribution was to conduct a "walkabout", surrounded by camera crews, on which he demanded to see immigrants' residence permits. This is not even right-wing "dog-whistle" politics; this is naked xenophobia.

It has to be conceded that the outgoing centre-left administration was hardly a model of tolerance. Mr Rutelli did nothing to prevent immigrant shanty towns mushrooming around Rome, a consequence of inadequate housing provision. And the administration launched into a panicked attempt to deport homeless Romanians migrants after the murder of Roman woman last October. The former mayor, Walter Veltroni, demanded an emergency law to expel immigrants from within the EU without legal process. Nothing much came of this, but it was a shameful moment none the less.

Yet Mr Alemanno threatens far worse. While in recent years migrant workers have been denied decent housing and discriminated against, they now face active official persecution. Mr Alemanno promised in his manifesto to deport 20,000 Romanian "criminals" and to tear down the shanty towns. His victory is also expected to embolden the neo-fascist thugs of Rome who already target vulnerable immigrants.

This victory must also be seen in broader context. The centre of gravity of Mr Berlusconi's ruling "People of Liberty" coalition is already further to the right than his previous administrations because it does not rely on support from former allies from the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats. The new national government was elected two weeks ago on a manifesto promise to deport any migrant workers without a residence permit. It now seems likely that migrants in Rome will be the first to feel the hard edge of that pledge.

Mr Alemanno's victory is another boost for Mr Berlusconi, but a bitter blow to anyone who dared to hope that Italy had buried its far-right demons.