The Man Who Would Be Duce: The Leader of Italy's Authoritarian Right Has Turned Liberal. A New Ally for Blair?

Article excerpt

Italy's downtrodden army of Moroc can tomato-pickers, Filipina cleaners and Egyptian pizza chefs have found an unexpected ally in a man who just ten years ago was singing the praises of Il Duce and making fascist salutes.

"I can't believe it," screamed the front page of the Marxist-leaning newspaper Il Manifesto, following the announcement on 8 October by Gianfranco Fini, the deputy prime minister, that he was in favour of granting immigrants some voting rights. Umberto Bossl, leader of the xenophobic Northern League and a partner of Fini's National Alliance in Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing governing coalition, said he thought Fini had gone mad. If so, there is method in his madness.

The votes-for-immigrants proposal, which could be presented to the Italian parliament this month, marks the culmination of Fini's ten-year strategy to turn his party, deeply rooted in Italian fascism, into a respectable, conservative, pro-European political force. When he first tried to visit London in 1995, the Anti-Nazi League held protests, joined by Labour politicians including Peter Hain and Denis MacShane, and stopped him speaking at a meeting in Chatham House. What will British anti-fascists say now?

Fini is a slippery character. As Berlusconi has been condemned internationally, he has worked quietly behind the scenes. As Berlusconi was ridiculed for making a joke about Nazis at the European Parliament and for his claim that Mussolini wasn't that bad, Fini kept his head down, ingratiating himself with the political establishment in Italy and abroad.

The first victim of Fini's conversion to the immigrant cause will be the overtly racist Bossi. If, as expected, the Italian parliament approves the legislation, Bossi will have to leave the government or face mass desertion from his electoral base of xenophobic pensioners in Lombardy.

Few people will be sorry to see the back of Bossi (apart from Berlusconi, whose own position in the coalition will be weakened if he loses such an important ally). Fini won't. His support comes from southern Italy and he has long been at odds with Bossi's northern separatism.

As to Fini's party, not all agree with him on extending the franchise to non-citizens, but only a handful of diehard racists are likely to leave over it. In any case, the new law will give the vote to only about 150,000 people, and only for local elections. They will have to have been legally resident in Italy for six years.

Polls show 70 per cent of Italians to be in favour of immigrant suffrage in administrative elections. Many Italians have parents and grandparents who were immigrants and the Catholic Church has lobbied for immigrants' suffrage for some time. Cooks, cleaners, nannies and private care workers are an essential part of middle class Italian life in Rome and Milan, where "Filipina" is synonymous with "cleaning woman". …