Lega Nord secretary Matteo Salvini: far right

Lega Nord and neo-fascism

The economic crisis is leaving an opening for the neo-fascist right in Italy, reports Toby Abse

The demonstration called by the Lega Nord in Rome on February 28 represented a milestone in the Lega’s genetic mutation. It is now closer to a neo-fascist organisation that is attempting to organise throughout the national territory - rather than a regionalist party demanding increased devolution or outright independence for the mythical ‘Padania’, as it has labelled northern Italy for the last 25 years.

Whilst the Lega has always been a racist organisation hostile to black and Arab immigrants as well as to Roma, regardless of how long they have been living in Italy, under the leadership of its founder, Umberto Bossi, it maintained some degree of distance from the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), Alleanza Nazionale (AN) and other neo-fascist (or allegedly ‘post-fascist’) groupings. To some extent this apparent ‘anti-fascism’ and occasional identification with the northern resistance of 1943-45 was connected to its hostility to Rome and the south. With some justice the Lega regarded neo-fascism as essentially a Roman and southern phenomenon, as, with the exception of Trieste on Italy’s north eastern border with Slovenia, all MSI/AN strongholds were in these regions.

After Bossi’s long political career ended in disgrace due to corruption scandals, he was eventually succeeded by the much younger Matteo Salvini, resulting in the Lega setting out on a new course. This new orientation involves downplaying the historical demands for a separate Padania in favour of a combination of ferocious anti-immigrant rhetoric and hostility to the European Union. Whilst the hatred of immigrants has with varying degrees of intensity been a constant feature of the Lega’s appeal, Its emphasis on the evils of the EU is a new one - the Lega, rather like the Scottish National Party, had originally sought independence within the EU, arguing that an independent Padania would be economically successful and much more able to compete with northern European states if it was freed from the dead weight of the backward and parasitic south, with its high taxation and welfare spending.

The new course has led it to ally at the European level with Marine Le Pen’s Front National, as well as to take up a more favourable attitude towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which Salvini has visited and from which it is widely believed the Lega receives a fair amount of its funding. It has also led to a much more conflictual relationship with the Lega’s ally for the last 15 years, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Whilst Berlusconi is far from enamoured with the European Central Bank and the European Commission and believes that his replacement as prime minister by Mario Monti in November 2011 was largely orchestrated from outside Italy (a theory which has a fair degree of plausibility), he is anxious to keep Euroscepticism within certain limits and maintain some links with the mainstream European centre-right, represented in the European parliament by the European People’s Party. Moreover, Berlusconi is anxious to preserve a Forza Italia-led centre-right administration in Campania, the region of which Naples is the centre. He thinks this would be impossible without an alliance with Angelino Alfano’s Nuovo Centro Destra (NCD - New Centre Right). He has demanded that the Lega accept an alliance with not only Forza Italia, but the NCD as well for the regional elections that will take place on May 10.

The struggle between a resurgent Lega and a declining Forza Italia, which are now almost level-pegging in the opinion polls, in the 13%-15% range, is further complicated by internal splits in both of these organisations. Berlusconi’s much weaker hold over his own party is demonstrated by his inability to deal with the stubborn dissidence of Raffaele Fitto, a former president of the Puglia region, who gained a very high preference vote in the 2014 European elections. Fitto now commands a sizeable group of around 40 Forza Italia parliamentarians, mainly from Puglia, but including a fair number from other southern regions. He believed that the excessive identification of Forza Italia with a PD-led government played straight into the hands of the Lega and allowed it to eat into Forza Italia’s traditional electorate.

Berlusconi’s decision to return to a much more oppositional stance - symbolised by the walkout of the Forza Italia group in the Chamber of Deputies during a recent debate on the Italicum, prime minister Matteo Renzi’s new electoral reform - was in large part a response to Fitto’s pressure, but the fact that the elderly delinquent has belatedly adopted the younger man’s political line has not led to any reconciliation between the two.

But the Lega, too, is plagued by internal divisions - especially in the Veneto region, where elections will take place this May. The feud between the Veneto’s regional president, Luca Zaia, and the mayor of Verona and secretary of the Liga Veneta, Flavio Tosi, has escalated in the last few weeks. It is now quite probable that Tosi will break with the Lega in the next few days, since he is refusing to dissolve an association he set up some time ago, which Salvini and Zaia are now regarding as a party within the party. Tosi is due to meet NCD leader Angelino Alfano - allegedly about matters connected with urban security, but in reality to discuss the possibility of an alliance between Tosi’s followers and the NCD for the regional elections.

Conversely, if this break occurs, it seems very likely that the official Lega Nord/Liga Veneta list will ally with Forza Italia for the regional elections, creating a head-to-head contest between Zaia and Tosi. Although this is a region in which the centre-left has traditionally been relatively weak, it is by no means certain that the split on the right will not assist Renzi’s Partito Democratico in gaining control of yet another region, given the increase in its vote in the north-east in the 2014 European election.

There are rumours that in the event of a poor Forza Italia performance in May, Berlusconi will scrap this party and create a new one with the name of ‘Forza Silvio’, but such antics would probably lead to a rapid split with Fitto’s followers, who envisage a post-Berlusconi centre-right. The latest opinion poll has placed the Lega clearly ahead of Forza Italia by 14.6% to 13%.

To return to the Rome demonstration, it should be noted that not only was it a demonstration in the capital city that sought to involve Romans (rather than a gathering of northerners to express anti-Roman sentiment of the sort that the Lega has organised in earlier years), but it clearly demonstrated an open willingness to ally with neo-fascists. The participation of Fratelli d’Italia, a parliamentary party in the MSI/AN tradition, had been announced for some time. What was more remarked upon was a substantial contingent of the hard-line street-fighting fascists of the notorious Casa Pound, whose banners were very much in evidence. These included some that openly praised Mussolini - and who made considerable use of the celtic cross, the emblem of the hard-core fascists nostalgics, particularly in Rome.

What was slightly reassuring, given the considerable size - some tens of thousands - of the demonstration, was the size of the anti-fascist counter-demonstration, which the police kept away from the Salvini rally. La Repubblica estimated the anti-fascist crowd at an impressive 20,000. It included autonomists as well as contingents from Rifondazione, Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà and others, but it clearly had a hard-left rather than centre-left character, with slogans that indicated opposition to Renzi as well as to Salvini and indeed to austerity in general.

Whether Greek events will spark a more lasting revival of the Italian left is still an open question, but it is clear that the continuing economic crisis and the relative decline of Berlusconi is providing an opening to what some have baptised fascio-leghismo (fascist link-up) on the extreme racist right.