Mussolini redux?

Italy’s Berlusconi unites the right, with him at the centre

Mussolini redux?Last weekend’s spectacular $5-million, three-day event in Rome uniting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party with Alleanza Nazionale, the post-Fascist heirs of Mussolini’s blackshirts, was designed to fete the historic consolidation of a conservative force in Italy. But the celebration marking the creation of the centre-right People of Freedom Party (PDL), in practice, served instead as a podium for the power-hungry prime minister to state his plans for even more authority, arguing he needed it to help modernize Italy and give it a more stable government.

As the first elected head of the PDL (a one-horse race, since Berlusconi was the only nominee), the 72-year-old prime minister used his speech to 6,000 of the right-wing party’s supporters to say he wanted to change the constitution to give him more power—“even without” the involvement of the opposition. While Berlusconi has yet to spell out exactly what these powers are beyond wanting to appoint and fire ministers as he pleases, he also wants to reform the president’s largely ceremonial role to resemble a French-American model, and make the president elected directly by the people. Political analysts say Berlusconi wants to increase the president’s role to include powers beyond dissolving parliament and calling elections, such as proposing laws and forging foreign policy, because he wants the job for himself when his term as PM ends in 2013.

If he succeeds, Berlusconi (who is in his third term of office) would be the most powerful Italian politician since Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who was in power from 1922 to 1943. ‘‘Recent experience has shown that the head of government should have more powers, which are not presently in place,” he told his supporters. But even before his speech was over, speculation began that the often-fractious relationship between Berlusconi and the co-founder of their new party, former Alleanza Nazionale leader Gianfranco Fini, 57, was again tense. Fini was notably absent from the assembly on Sunday. On Monday, he told journalists he disapproved of the billionaire-turned-politician’s plans to change Italy’s constitution without working with the opposition, but said he was waiting for more details regarding the changes.

That Fini would speak out against the prime minister surprises nobody. In the past, he has criticized Berlusconi’s proposal to restrict voting in parliament to party whips instead of individual lawmakers. He also criticized legislation promoted by the government placing restrictions on living wills, suggesting the government had caved to pressure from the Catholic Church in drafting a bill preventing people from stating they do not want to be kept alive in a comatose state.

An ambitious and skilled politician in his own right, with an eye on Berlusconi’s job, the former neo-Fascist youth leader is credited with moving his party away from its disgraced past. He’s made several trips to Israel condemning Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws, and was once photographed in a yarmulke at the Holocaust Museum. He has also connected with Muslims (there are over 1.2 million Muslims in Italy, which has a population of 58 million) by speaking out against immigrant discrimination. The prime minister, by contrast, is a polarizing figure with a talent for enraging critics with remarks construed as sexist or racist. Given the uneasy relations between the two men, there are doubts whether the PDL will succeed in becoming a strong political force—even with the Italian left in shambles.

But Berlusconi’s manoeuvring may have another purpose. “The future of Italian politics is very uncertain,” says Michael Shin, an author and expert on Italian politics. “People on the left would rather abstain from voting than vote for Berlusconi. Berlusconi is 72—this is probably his last term in office. He’s not necessarily doing this for the Italian centre-right or for the party itself. I think he is trying to establish a legacy for himself.”