ROME — "The only force that helped Italy survive was Fascism," says Ferdnanda Baldini, an elderly housewife in Florence.
She praises the late dictator Benito Mussolini, whose Fascist movement peaked prior to World War II, and denounces those she identifies as his enemies: atheist Communists, Zionist Jews, masons, and trade unions.
Lately Mrs. Baldini has added a new name to her enemies' list: Gianfranco Fini, the young politician who in the past few years has transformed Italy's neo-Fascist movement into a more modern right-wing party named the National Alliance. Over and over again she says she feels betrayed by Mr. Fini for founding the new party. He practically announced that he rejects all that Fascism created, she says.
Baldini now supports Pino Rauti, whose splinter group called the Social Movement still carries aloft the Fascist banner. "If he should disappear, I won't vote, because I don't feel like negotiating or compromising," she says.
Baldini knows her impact is limited to voting her conscience since Mr. Rauti gets only 1 or 2 percent of the vote nationally.
By contrast, Fini's National Alliance has grown as he moves the party further away from its neo-Fascist roots.
Italy's right-wing vote has gone from 5.2 percent in the 1992 national elections, when the party was still the Italian Social Movement (MSI), to 15.7 percent in the 1996 elections won by the ruling center-left coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
Fini himself is benefiting, too. The party's dynamic leader consistently places among the country's highest-rated politicians in public opinion polls.
"They've won a new electorate that was not linked to the Fascist experience," observes Piero Ignazi, a political scientist at the University of Bologna and author of books on European and Italian right-wing movements. "The consensus comes from all levels of society, especially the young."
The National Alliance, which took the place of the MSI in January 1995, emphasizes that Fascism is finished. "The voters who are still in some way linked to [Fascism] either vote for Rauti or don't vote or don't exist any more, simply because more than 50 years have passed since the end of World War II," says Adolfo Urso, a parliamentary deputy and part of the National Alliance's 15-member national executive.
The National Alliance is not like the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Mr. Urso says. The points of reference he cites are Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan."The Italian right is not racist and never has been. It isn't chauvinistic. It isn't xenophobic," he says.
Left-wing commentator Barbara Spinelli agrees that Mr. Le Pen's National Front and Fini's National Alliance are two different phenomena. "Italy and France are not in any way comparable in the present historical moment," she wrote last week in La Stampa, a prestigious Turin daily.
Communism, the historic enemy of Fascism, collapsed with the Berlin Wall, so it was natural that Fini should transform the neo-Fascist MSI into a new party, Urso says. The black shirts of Mussolini's followers, the Fascist salutes, and the Mussolini busts - all MSI symbols earlier in the decade, when Fini was still calling Mussolini the century's greatest statesman - are gone. Fascism is finished, Urso says.
"It's a historical fact. It's a little like studying Napoleon," he says.
Professor Ignazi, while admitting that he is very hard on the National Alliance, is much more cautious. He sees in the party strong cultural, ideological, and sentimental links to Fascism. The National Alliance has not repudiated Fascism or termed it a mistake or an evil, he says, it has simply swept Fascism under the rug.
"There are many nice declarations, but no consistent action has been taken," Ignazi says. "Doing that is terribly painful."