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Leading Article: Showmanship returns to Italian politics

THE Italian journalist Luigi Barzini once wrote a best-selling study of his fellow countrymen in which the chapter on Fascism bore the wry title: 'Mussolini, or the limits of showmanship.'

It is best to bear in mind both the extraordinary success of the Duce and the eventual sad limitations of his style when contemplating the confused and turbulent map of modern Italian politics. An opinion poll yesterday suggested that victory in Italy's next elections could go to an alliance of the television magnate Silvio Berlusconi, the populist Northern League headed by Umberto Bossi and the neo-fascists led by Gianfranco Fini.

Mr Berlusconi, who has recently discovered the bracing effects of reform, made his fortune as a property speculator in Milan, rose in tandem with Bettino Craxi's thoroughly rotten Socialist Party and used his connections to develop a lucrative network of television stations. His theories of government are vague. His economic proposals remain suspect. His business is laden with debt and his motives for entering politics are curious.

Mr Bossi is the representative of a party that plays on the justifiable resentment of tax-paying northern Italians against the waste, corruption and inertia they perceive to be rife south of the Tuscan hills. But he is perhaps its most vulgar figure and the intemperate nature of his rhetoric raises memories as disquieting as they are vivid.

Mr Fini trades on memories, for he is the direct inheritor of the Duce's political legacy. His party includes elderly nostalgics, who yearn for an era of blackshirts and punctual trains, and skinheads whose nostalgia rarely extends beyond last Sunday's football match.

The alliance of these three, a mixture of crude ideology, regional prejudice and a powerful media machine, calls forth anxiety from many Italians and many of Italy's friends abroad. But these are early days. The election will be the first since the old ruling system collapsed. It is not surprising that many voters should seek reassurance in simple solutions, or that the Italian right should reassert its traditional strength. But the left-wing popular alliance also has a strong cause and Mario Segni's worthy centrist group may attract more support as people examine Mr Berlusconi's credentials and find them wanting. Italian voters know too well the limitations of showmanship.