Popolo della Liberta unites Berlusconi and Alleanza Nazionale

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Silvio Berlusconi is about to take the biggest gamble of his roller-coaster political career, as he unites his Forza Italia party with the heirs to Mussolini's blackshirts.

Today the Italian Prime Minister will launch the Popolo della Liberta, or People of Freedom party (PDL), which merges his own group with the “post-Fascist” Alleanza Nazionale. Now serving his third term as Prime Minister, Mr Berlusconi will make a triumphant speech on Sunday promising the Right power for years to come at a time when the Italian Left is in disarray.

Organisers have promised a spectacular three-day event costing €3 million (£2.8 million) to mark the occasion. The idea is to give Italy a coherent conservative political force with Mr Berlusconi as its undisputed leader, matching the Conservative party in Britain, the CDU in Germany or the Christian Democrats who ruled postwar Italy for half a century. But the plan could backfire: waiting in the wings is Gianfranco Fini, 57, the suave and ambitious leader of Alleanza Nazionale and the Prime Minister's greatest rival.

When the Alleanza disbanded itself last weekend to prepare for the merger, some members voiced their fears that the party would be absorbed and overwhelmed by Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Equally, others say that Forza Italia is really a one-man show, and once Mr Berlusconi is gone it is the former Fascists who will come to dominate. “I am not immortal,” the Prime Minister admitted this week. “If only.” Coming from the man who once called himself the Jesus Christ of politics, it was quite an admission.

The Alleanza Nazionale evolved in 1994 from the MSI, or Italian Social Movement, the descendant of the outlawed Fascist party. It has spent much time and effort distancing itself from its unsavoury past: Mr Fini, a former neo-Fascist youth leader, has tried to establish a rapport with Italy's Jewish community and repudiated some of his own statements.

Mr Fini has made repeated trips to Israel, condemning Mussolini's 1938 anti-Semitic race laws and being photographed in a skull cap at the Holocaust Museum and the Wailing Wall. He has increasingly moved to the centre, attacking discrimination against immigrants and reaching out to Muslims as well as Jews.

Asked this week if he still thought Mussolini was “the greatest statesman of the 20th century”, as he had remarked in 1994, he replied: “No. If I still took that view I would be a schizophrenic, given everything I have done in the past 15 years.” He told the final Alleanza congress: “We have come to terms with our past, we have said clear words of condemnation on Italian history between the two wars.”

According to Mr Fini the PDL will be a “broad-based party in which the values of the Right will provide additional inspiration”. Ignazio La Russa, the Defence Minister and an Alleanza leader, assured his party that “we won't be disappearing”.

Mr Fini – who as Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies is a classic Establishment figure – has has been careful to praise Forza Italia, which Mr Berlusconi formed in 1994 to fill the vacuum created on the centre Right by the collapse of Christian Democracy in corruption scandals. The Berlusconi party was, he said, this week, not a “meteor” that would disappear across the sky, nor was it a “plastic” party.

But these smooth words mask a ruthless, long-term ambition. Mr Fini said recently that he saw no reason why Mr Berlusconi should not become head of state at the end of the current legislature in four years' time – clearing the way for Mr Fini to succeed him as head of the PDL and then, perhaps, as prime minister.

Mr Fini faces defections by diehard ultra-rightists, who reject his move into the mainstream and have instead joined or formed openly far-right groupings. He also has to contend with the xenophobic Northern League, the powerful third force in the centre-right coalition, which remains outside the new People of Freedom party and has boasted that it, too, will offer a home to disillusioned right-wingers. Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce's granddaughter, is a PDL member but has broken with Mr Fini in the past.

His main obstacle, however, remains Mr Berlusconi. The Prime Minister is populist, an astute politician and a survivor who has fought off repeated corruption allegations, wields huge media power and has given himself immunity from prosecution.

Mr Fini will not have an uncontested run. The Prime Minister is grooming younger Forza Italia leaders, including Angelino Alfano, 38, the Justice Minister, as potential successors. And he has a potential ace card – a constitutional change making the president elected directly by the people instead of chosen by Parliament, and giving the head of state greater powers, on the French or American model.

If Mr Berlusconi gets this through parliament – and if he is then elected president himself – he may yet outwit his wily challenger.

Sons of Il Duce

— The Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) was founded in 1946 by supporters of Benito Mussolini. It contested its first elections in 1948 and won six seats in the Chamber of Deputies

— From the 1950s to the early 1970s it averaged about 25 deputies

— In 1960, when the MSI formed part of a parliamentary majority, protest riots led to the fall of the Christian Democratic Government

— In 1983 the party gained 42 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and four years later Gianfranco Fini was elected as its leader

— In 1994 it refashioned itself as the Alleanza Nazionale and joined forces with two centre-right parties. The alliance swept to power in elections that year, capturing 13.5 per cent of the vote and gaining six Cabinet posts

— Though the governing coalition was short-lived, the Alleanza Nazionale returned to government in 2001 when Fini was appointed Deputy Prime Minister continues here

Clever use of an image above.

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