The local elections held throughout England on Thursday saw an absolute trouncing of the Labour Party, with the most notable casualty being London mayor Ken Livingstone, who has been replaced as of Sunday by Conservative candidate Boris Johnson. Johnson is going to be a real wild card because not much is known about what he will do. In fact his whole campaign seemed to be centered around making buses shorter, as far as I can tell. One thing that’s clear is that Johnson benefited from good timing, cashing in on widespread dissatisfaction with Ken Livingstone as well as Gordon Brown’s plummeting polls.
But as Labour frets over the implications of having a conservative mayor for the first time since the office was created, on the continent the left is far more concerned about a different mayor recently put into office. It seemed to slip under the radar for the English-language press, but last week Rome elected a Neo-Fascist leader, Gianni Alemanno, as its new mayor. It is the first time since the fall of Mussolini that a Fascist party has attained such a high position of power.
In the early 1980’s Alemanno became well-known for leading violent fascist youth demonstrations in Rome. The young, square-jawed and handsome firebrand became a protégé of Gianfranco Fini, the rightist leader who later founded the neo-Fascist National Alliance party in 1993. Since then Alemanno has worked hard to become the legitimized voice of Fascism in modern Italy, appearing often on Silvio Berlusconi-owned television stations. Berlusconi later appointed Alemanno as agriculture minister in his 2001-2006 government.
The new mayor of Rome ran on an anti-immigrant law and order platform - blaming gypsies, intellectuals, immigrants and artists for Italy’s troubles. He’s already vowed to demolish a controversial new Rome museum and it is expected that he will shut down or greatly diminish the popular Rome Film Festival. One of his campaign's print ads carried the slogan, "Alemanno, for less cinema and more security.” – referencing his plans for the festival.
According to reports, last Tuesday night after the victory was declared, Alemanno supporters flooded onto the steps of the Campidoglio city hall and gave "saluti Romani" — the stiff-arm salute adopted by Mussolini and later used by the Nazis. They also chanted, "Duce! Duce!", which was what Benito Mussolini styled himself. Yesterday a young graphic designer named Nicola Tommasoli died in Verona after being attacked by a Neo-Fascist mob, and much of the coverage of the attack in the Italian press has asked, is this the first sign of things to come in Italy?
Alemanno’s win comes just two weeks after conservative Italian media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was voted back into office as Italy’s prime minister, and together the two elections, which both had very tight margins, will signal a tectonic shift to the right in Italy. Berlusconi responded to the news of Alemanno's victory by saying, "We are the new Falange." The original Falange of course being the Spanish Fascist party of Francisco Franco founded in the 1930s.
Berlusconi's allies in parliament were even more direct. The prime minster owes his recent electoral win to a tie-up with the Northern League party, a regional hard right party that wants autonomy for the North. Northern League leader Umberto Bossi has so far used tactics that are reminiscant of Italy in the 1930's. In his first session in Italy's parliament last week he warned of street violence if the centre-left did not go along with his plans for federalism. According to The Guardian, he told reporters, "I don't know what the left wants [but] we are ready. If they want conflicts, I have 300,000 men always on hand."
Of course the Neo-Fascists in power are quick to insist that such violence has nothing to do with them. Those who have seats in government wear expensive suits rather than military uniforms, and they are careful these days to pay lip service to a non-Mussolinized society. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Gianfranco Fini’s speech to parliament last week as he took office as the new speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Though Fini, the leader of National Alliance, once called Mussolini the ‘greatest Italian of the 20th century,’ in this speech he pledged his loyalty to Liberation Day, which celebrates the fall of Mussolini’s government. And each elected Neo-Fascist politician seems to be required to make two token gestures – to renounce militarism and to express regret to Jewish leaders for the Holocaust. Yet aside from these two things much of their platforms are remarkably similar to the Mussolini era, most notably in the vilification of all things ‘different’ (immigrants, those with darker skin, gypsies, homosexuals, artists) and the insistence that a crack-down on ‘lawlessness’ is the only solution to Italy’s political and economic woes.
However, though Berlusconi backs Alemanno and the win seems like a unified win for the Italian right, it is possible that Alemanno could cause more headaches for the Italian prime minister than benefit. After all, Berlusconi is a conservative, not a fascist, and some of the more extreme statements and actions by the new Rome mayor could scare moderate Italian voters away from Berlusconi if they view him as a close Alemanno ally.
As Italy continues down its worst economic slump in decades, and with the rightists now more entrenched in the government than at any time since World War II, it’s going to be an interesting time to be Italian.