A new fascist revival is brewing in Italy, 70 years after the demise of Mussolini. Italy’s racist and formerly separatist Lega Nord is transforming itself into a national party – and hardening its politics with a new and dangerous tie-up with the fascist Casa Pound Italia.
Strong results for Lega Nord (the Northern League) in yesterday’s elections – held in seven of Italy’s regions – and its alarming rise in the polls nationally tell only part of the story, as the Italian far right undergoes a dramatic reorganisation. We will come back to the election results below.
This is not the first resurgence of fascism in Italy, where it was never thoroughly wiped out after World War Two and where it has had a stronger continuing presence than anywhere else in Europe – and a history of participation in and links with the state.
In 1960, the rightwing government of Fernando Tambroni tried to formally endorse the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the fascist organisation formed in 1946 by Mussolini’s heirs and supporters. In the 1970s, the fascist paramilitaries of Ordine Nuovo ran a terrorist bombing campaign. Five fascists, members of Alleanza Nazionale – successor to the MSI – became ministers in a Berlusconi-led government in the 1990s.
The latest shake-up is part of a wider realignment affecting the racist and fascist far right across Europe – but it is also shaped by factors specific to Italy itself.
Benito Mussolini, the pioneering fascist dictator of Italy, was executed by partisans and strung up by his feet back in 1945 – but in February this year, there were fascist salutes and Mussolini placards on display in one of Rome’s central squares.
An estimated 25,000 marched to the Piazza del Popolo to a rally, bringing together the main elements of Italy’s far right: the Lega – under its dynamic new leader Matteo Salvini – the openly fascist activist organisation Casa Pound Italia, and Fratelli di Italia-AN (Brothers of Italy-National Alliance), the group that includes the remnants of the MSI.
The FdI-AN retains the MSI’s old tricolour flame symbol, to ensure no one misses its heritage – if it looks familiar to you, that may be because the device is also used in France by Marine Le Pen’s fascist Front National.
Then, last month, Salvini was rapturously received by 1,300 Casa Pound militants in Rome’s Brancaccio theatre. There they declared him their “captain”. This was the Rome launch of the new political alliance between the Lega and Casa Pound.
It featured the blue and yellow banners and slogans of the Lega’s new national organisation, which its leader has with charming modesty named after himself: Noi Con Salvini – Us with Salvini. There too were the symbols of the new outfit that Casa Pound has launched as the more respectable vehicle for its side of the alliance: Sovranità, or sovereignty – which, by pure coincidence also has blue and yellow colours.
These moves marked a new departure for the Lega.
It was formed in 1991 as a regionalist organisation, advocating secession for Italy’s more prosperous northern regions. A year later it took 8.7% in the 1992 general election, gaining 56 deputies and 26 senators. While it has wobbled between pure separatist and federalist positions, the Lega gained a spot for itself among Europe’s far right populist parties and, like them, used racism – especially directed at immigrants – to build.
But the Lega traditionally kept to its northern base, disparaging Italy’s poorer South, and – like other European far right parties, such as UKIP – it stood apart from outright fascists.
Salvini’s new direction
All that has changed under Salvini, who took over as the Lega’s chief in December 2013, beating founder Umberto Bossi in a leadership election.
Salvini has seen the scale of the FN’s rise in France, and sees the opportunity to ride the racist wave to similar national success in Italy. Already he is trying to position the Lega as the main opposition to the centre left government of Matteo Renzi. The Lega’s mobilisations are often aimed at what the racists dub the “invasion” of immigrants. But on the Piazza del Popolo, the main slogan was directed at the corridors of power: “Renzi go home”.
This repositioning has meant a break from regionalism, so the Lega chief has played up anti-immigrant and anti-Roma racism and made declarations and overtures of friendship towards Italy’s southern population.
He brought the Lega into the planned European Parliament grouping launched by the FN’s Le Pen and Geert Wilders’ racist populist PVV party in the Netherlands. The group failed to gain members in enough EU countries to secure funding as a formal parliamentary group – but, notably, the Lega stayed with the FN and PVV outside the group system rather than return to its old place in the group dominated by UKIP.
The links are still there: Le Pen sent a message of support to Salvini’s Piazza del Popolo rally.
But while Le Pen in France has focused on “de-demonising” her party, seeking to hide its fascist politics under a slick, respectable veneer (leading to ructions with the cruder, more openly fascist style of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen), Salvini’s approach is different.
He seeks to project an FN-style nationalist appeal, but rather than distancing himself from anything too obviously fascist-looking, Salvini is taking to the streets as well as the polling booths – and he has embraced Casa Pound.
Casa Pound – named after the American poet and dedicated fascist Ezra Pound – is not shy about its ideology at all. Its leader Simone di Stefano has explained that Mussolini’s reign is “our point of reference, a vision of the state and the economy and the concept of sacrifice”.
The organisation projects itself as a social activist organisation, using methods more often associated with the left, such as squatting. But leftwingers and trade unionists have reported being physically attacked by the fascist gangs. Its flag is a Third Reich homage, with a circular motif of black and white arrows on a red field, although the student wing prefers a huge SS-style lightning bolt.
Now Di Stefano says: “Matteo Salvini is the leader in opposition to Renzi and we support him. We agree with every word of Salvini’s programme, with three pillars: no euro, we want our currency; second: stop immigration, there is no room for anyone else; third fundamental point, Italians first!”
It is not quite clear how Noi Con Salvini and Sovranità are supposed to dovetail, nor whether the Lega will at some point drop its “Northern” branding.
But what is clear is that Salvini’s change of direction is winning a worrying level of support. In the last national opinion polls before the weekend’s regional elections, Lega Nord was in third place on 15.5%.
This is well behind Renzi’s centre left Partito Democratico on 37.5% and also below the anti-establishment populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (“Five Star Movement” – M5S) on 21%.
But the Lega’s poll rating was way beyond its own highest ever election votes – 10.1% in the 1996 general election and 10.2% in the 2009 European election. It was also notably ahead of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia on 10%. The FdI-AN fascists picked up another 4% on its own, adding to the far right figures.
Yesterday’s elections took place in only seven of Italy’s 20 regions. But they sound a warning signal.
In the Veneto region, Lega Nord’s Luca Zaia kept his governor’s seat with just over 50% of the vote. Elsewhere, a system of electoral alliances has partially obscured the Lega’s strength.
In Liguria, for example, Giovanni Toti, of Berlusconi’s FI, was elected for a rightwing-far right coalition with 34.44% of the vote. The largest single chunk of that came not from FI voters, who delivered 12.66%, but from Lega voters’ 20.25%.
In Toscana, Claudio Borghi came second behind the centre-left with 20.02% on a joint Lega and FdI-AN ticket, without the aid of the FI. The same joint far right-fascist ticket brought third place with 18.98% – only slightly behind the M5S populists’ 21.78% – in Marche.
A wider coalition, including the FI, the Lega and the FdI-AN came narrowly second with a total 39.27% in Umbria – in central Italy, outside the Lega’s traditional comfort zone. The rightwing coalition just behind the centre-left coalition’s 42.78%. Again, the Lega provided the largest chunk of the far right vote – 13.99%, or more than a third of the coalition’s total.
Last month, Casa Pound also scored its first electoral success with the election of Andrea Bonazza to the city council in the Alpine town of Bolzano.
The Lega’s rise and its new alliance with Casa Pound should be seen in the context of the wider European far right, which has been in a state of flux for some time.
Across Europe, different far right racist formations – hardcore nazis including Hungary’s Jobbik and Golden Dawn in Greece, Le Pen style Eurofascists, racist populist parties like UKIP or the PVV, and street movements such as the English Defence League or Germany’s Pegida – have been regrouping and sometimes combining, seeking to find the best way to exploit the bitterness caused by austerity across the continent.
This has also led to a cross-fertilisation of ideas and organisations too. So we have seen the tie-up between fascist Le Pen and racist populist Wilders, based on a common use of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism. The EDL have drawn on the street marches of the old National Front, but based their appeal on Islamophobia – Western Europe’s fashionable form of racism – as well.
Now the Lega and Casa Pound are bringing their forces together, with the potential to create a serious national organisation with a fascist, activist and streetfighting core and a wider electoral appeal. Such a formation, echoing the classic fascist twin-track strategy of Mussolini and Hitler, is a dangerous prospect.
Italy’s fertile terrain
Italy also offers fertile terrain for racists and fascists to grow. Its economic crisis dates back not to the crash of 2008, but even further ¬– the economy has barely grown at all since 1999. Since 2008, however, things have got worse: the economy has shrunk by 9% with manufacturing output down 25%. Unemployment is over 13%, with 40% of young people out of work.
While Renzi’s PD remains on a high in the polls, the centre left prime minister may not be all that secure as he continues on a path of political reform and austerity. In April, he announced €10bn of spending cuts for next year. A good indication of where Renzi stands is probably the description of him in the bosses’ paper, the Financial Times, as “the last hope for Italy’s political elite”.
And Italy’s politics are a mess. There has been a continuing thread of fascism running unbroken through the post-war decades. At times, the fascists have sheltered under the comforting umbrella of the rightwing coalitions put together by arch-crook and media tycoon Berlusconi.
But the far right has also benefited over the years from the destruction of the mainstream post-war centre left and centre right parties in the huge 1990s Tangentopoli corruption scandal.
That bred a disillusionment with mainstream politics that has produced a series of less traditional formations, ranging from Berlusconi’s various vehicles to the weird but popular anti-establishment (and also anti-immigrant) M5S, centred on the person of comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo.
The radical left Rifondazione, which promised so much in the early 2000s, effectively committed suicide by joining the government of former EU president Romano Prodi in 2006. When Prodi’s government continued the economic programme of its Berlusconi-run predecessor, voters turned their backs on it – radical left and all – and returned the old fraudster to power in 2008.
Now the Lega and its new alliance are aiming to position themselves as the main alternative to Renzi and the PD. They have already displaced Berlusconi’s FI as the leading force on the right.
The potential for the Lega-Casa Pound tie-up is not only a worry in parliamentary politics, but on the streets as well, and not only at their own events.
In December 2013, an anti-austerity protest movement spread across Italy, under the name Forconi – Pitchforks – emerged. The protests took place in the north and the south, with railways and roads blockaded. In Turin, riot police showed their sympathy with the protests by putting away their truncheons and taking off their helmets.
The Pitchforks were not mainly working class protestors – instead the demonstrations brought together farmers, truckers, unemployed people, students, anti-austerity campaigners… and, in some places, the undisguised fascist cadres of Casa Pound.
Where the left does not take the lead against austerity and despair, fascists and racists can move in.
Antiracists and antifascists in Italy have been regularly mobilising against the Lega – and we wish them all solidarity. That opposition is needed at every turn, because Salvini’s national project and his new alliance are dangerous indeed.