Italy's hard-right party is turning respectable Last fascist ties vanish as alliance becomes vital part of opposition


VERONA, Italy -- Italy's hard right-wing political party, shedding its last loyalties to a lingering Fascist tradition, emerged from a three-day conference this weekend as the stable, indispensable and increasingly respectable member of Italy's center-right opposition.

Several thousand delegates of the party, the National Alliance, gathered here under the nonthreatening, if unlikely, symbol of a red-and-black ladybug. They listened to their pragmatic party leader, Gianfranco Fini, 46 -- who is being called the "Tony Blair of the Italian right" -- declare that the party has completed its break with the past and is ready to embrace a future untinged by old ideological battles.

"The National Alliance has no intention of using the history and the tragedies of the century that is now ending as political weapons," he said.

Italy is governed by a center-left coalition that put Fini into the opposition.

The present government is 22 months old, something of a novelty for Italy. For months, commentators have been marveling at the rare period of political stability, though critics of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government have begun to complain that it is already behaving like a "regime."

Now on the verge of winning its hard-fought battle to bring Italy into Europe's new common currency, the Prodi government shows no signs that it is ready to topple. Italy's political forces have taken the occasion to take stock, and where possible, to regroup.

Two weeks ago, Massimo D'Alema, leader of the Democratic Party of the Left -- the moderate heir to the old Communist Party, and the mainstay of the governing coalition -- told participants at a conference in Florence of his hopes to unite with other progressive parties in a new party that would drop, once and for all, the old Communist symbols.

Fini, who spoke twice to repeated applause at the Verona conference, presented several new themes for his party, continuing an odyssey begun three years ago when he dropped the party's post-Fascist symbols and some of its die-hard supporters. In the last national elections, the National Alliance won almost 16 percent of the vote, not much of a gain on its 1994 performance.

Now, Fini seems bent on luring new supporters from Italy's northern regions, where the secessionist Northern League has played successfully to widespread dissatisfaction with the inefficiencies, corruption and heavy-handedness of the government in Rome.

Breaking with his party's old statist, centralist views that traditionally have had strong appeal in Italy's poorer south, Fini spoke sympathetically this weekend of northern Italy's complaints, and advocated a federalist solution.

"We are at a crossroad now," said Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Italian Fascist dictator and a frequent critic of the party leadership. "We will either be crushed as a small party of the right, or we will become a political party capable of setting the rules for what's left of the center-right coalition."

Oddly enough, it was not Fini, but his centrist ally, Silvio Berlusconi, the magnate and former prime minister, who addressed the conference like a ghostly voice from another era.

He warned darkly about Communist tendencies among Italy's governing leftists and distributed 5,000 free copies of the Italian edition (printed by a publishing house that he owns) of a much-discussed French book that presents an exhaustive account of crimes committed under communism.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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