Is Italy Flirting with Fascism? Silvio Berlusconi Is Back in Power. Rome Has a Mayor Who Won on an Anti-Immigration Platform. the Right Is Noisier Than Ever. but This Is Not a Return to the Dark Days of Mussolini, Argues Donald Sassoon

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Is Italy going fascist? Is Berlusconi like Mussolini? Will the past repeat itself-this time, unquestionably, as farce?

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The signs are ominous, and as Silvio Berlusconi emerged victorious in Italy's elections in April, the international press reached for the history books. The triumphant coalition included, along with a "party" financed almost entirely by Berlusconi's media empire, a "post-fascist" party (the National Alliance, which merged its list with that of Berlusconi) and the xenophobic Northern League, still led by Umberto Bossi despite a stroke that has left him semi-paralysed and his voice a barely audible croak. Two weeks later Rome had a new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a post-fascist elected on an anti-immigrant platform.

To add insult to injury, Berlusconi appointed as minister for equal opportunities a 33-year-old former glamour model and Miss Italy aspirant, Mara Carfagna, who is, apparently, deeply committed to "family values".

This Italian saga may be distressing, demoralising and upseting. But fascism--a word that some use to signal their indignation and mortification-is the wrong diagnosis. The opposition will still be able to regroup and go on fighting without being threatened by black-shirted bullies or antidemocratic legislation. There will still be elections, a few strikes, and the odd demonstration. On the other hand, broadcasting will be more servile, because Berlusconi, owner of almost the entire media private sector, will, by appointing cronies, also control the state sector. Yet even 20 years ago a Jeremy Paxman would not have lasted five minutes. The daily press remains relatively free from Berlusconi's control.

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There is no denying that Berlusconi's victory was stunning. His coalition obtained almost 47 per cent of the vote-far better than any British government since 1966. He triumphed throughout Italy with the exception of the centre, the left's last redoubt. The various radical and unreconstructed communist parties that had made life difficult for Romano Prodi's short-lived centre-left coalition were wiped out.

The Italian electorate was not in search of novelty. Berlusconi is no longer "new". He is now a seasoned politician who won in 1994 and 2001. When he lost in April 2006, it was by only 25,000 votes.

Nor is it accurate to suggest that the electorate was punishing Prodi. Considering his tiny majority and the absurdly fractious behaviour of some of his partners, he could never have been a great success. Yet it was not a disaster. In his two years in office, Prodi abolished a host of petty bureaucratic restrictions, took decisive measures to counter tax evasion and succeeded in reducing the budget deficit to less than 3 per cent of GDP (to plaudits from the European Union but the dismay of Italy's taxpayers, who had to pay for this feat).

Not much unites the victorious coalition save an appetite for power, but that is usually enough. The Northern League is in favour of regional devolution to ensure that the wealth generated in the north will stay there instead of subsidising the south. More recently, the League has refocused its target, toning down its usual verbal abuse of southerners. The main enemies now are immigrants to Italy, accused of being behind a recent spate of serious crimes-a new pinnacle of chutzpah in a country where the Mafia, the world's best-known criminal organisation, is entirely home-grown.

Vigilantes now prowl among the Roma and burn their camps down. The post-fascists, too, are keen on their law and order, but they cannot share the anti-southern mindset of the Northern League because they are strongest in the south. Berlusconi is supposed to be a neoliberal; his past rhetoric was conventionally demagogic, however: lower taxes and more public spending. His liberalism stops where his business starts. Monopolies are fine if you happen to own them. …