A CRUCIAL debate is taking place about the future of Italian democracy, at the heart of which is the country's fascist past.
The controversy centers around two distinct but related issues concerning the right-wing government of Prime Minister Sivlio Berlusconi:
* The political heirs of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini are fighting over the future of their party, the Italian Social Movement (MSI).
Leader Gianfranco Fini wants to give the MSI a new image by dissolving it into the National Alliance, a more moderate umbrella group he created for last March's parliamentary elections and one of the three main parties in the coalition government.
But MSI hard-liners threaten schism, saying they will not renounce their party's continuity with fascism, a system that included strong central government, massive state-owned companies, and limited individual liberties.
* Freedom of the press from political and corporate masters remains a distant reality in Italy. Politicians and analysts on the center and the left say that a conflict of interest and a threat to freedom of information exist as long as Mr. Berlusconi remains the owner of three private television networks that compete with the three public stations run by Berlusconi's government.
The British Broadcasting Corporation aired a television documentary Sept. 26 called ``Berlusconi: Mussolini of the Media?,'' which explored the potential dangers to democracy of combining political and communications powers in a single individual.
Historians interviewed by the Monitor say it would be a mistake to look for a return of fascism, because too much has changed since 1922-45, the years when Mussolini (``Il Duce'') ruled Italy.
The threat in the post-industrial age, they say, is something softer, subtler, more hidden.
``When our entire population is on its knees in front of television ... what do we call it?,'' asks Piergiorgio Zunino, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Turin.
``The old fascism doesn't explain this.''
When former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato left office in April 1993, he observed that Italian democracy was founded on ``that model of party-state that was introduced in Italy by Fascism and that the [postwar] republic ended up inheriting'' - except, he added, that instead of there being one party there were many parties.
Mr. Amato's thesis - that Italy's political parties have controlled the government, massive state-owned companies, the media, etc., in a way similar to the Fascists - goes a long way in explaining the patronage system that became entrenched over the last 50 years or so and that has been exposed since 1992 in an ongoing series of judicial investigations into kickbacks and political corruption.
Italians became accustomed, for example, to the fact that their state-owned RAI television news came from political appointees of the Christian Democrats (RAI1), the Socialists (RAI2), or the Communists (RAI3) and that as a consequence each station had a very distinct, highly politicized world view. The concept of independent, impartial information is unknown here. Italian politicians across the spectrum still think the way to get their point of view across is not through free and fair competition of ideas but by controlling a TV station, newspaper, or magazine.
Spoils of victory
The new ruling parties moved quickly to put their mark on television. In July, the Parliament replaced the RAI administrative council. The council's new president is a friend of Berlusconi's. On Sept. 17, the council voted 3 to 2 to replace top TV managers, appointing several people who had previously worked for Berlusconi's TV stations.
The Northern League, a member of the coalition with the National Alliance and Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, at first demanded the resignation of the RAI's administrative council, saying the League was staunchly opposed to this kind of spoils-system behavior. But after negotiations with government partners on Sept. 26, the League now seems prepared to drop the demand in exchange for editorial control over one of the three state TV stations.
President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, in his role as defender of the Constitution, said recently that all political parties should have equal access to television and that the issue transcends squabbles about particular RAI administrative councils.
While the country's politicians duke it out over the media, the Italian far right is wrestling with its own future.
Mr. Fini, the National Alliance leader, is broadly credited with wanting to move his party away from extreme-right to center-right politics.
``I have publicly said in the Chamber of Deputies that we repudiated totalitarianism; that Fascism was a totalitarian experience that ended, however, with the death of Mussolini; and that we fully accept the values of democracy,'' said Fini in a Sept. 25 interview with La Voce newspaper.
``He wants to turn his party, as smoothly as he can, into a respectable right-wing movement,'' says Paul Ginsborg, a British professor of history at the University of Florence.
Italians widely refer to MSI supporters as ``fascists,'' though the Italian Constitution prohibits the formation of a Fascist party. For months, Fini loyalists have been trying to purge the party of extremism: no Fascist salutes (a tradition following MSI political speeches), no black shirts (the historic symbol of Mussolini's followers), no photos or busts of Il Duce, and no MSI flags with their tricolor flames.
Fini's political positions emerge in sharp focus from a just-published book of interviews with Paolo Francia, the new director of RAI radio and the former deputy editor of Il Tempo, a Rome newspaper with neofascist leanings.
Fini says that ``the French right of Gaullist inspiration is what comes closest to the National Alliance, even though there are many differences.'' He notes that Roman Catholic values have a strong place within his party and that the state, while not itself religious, should be founded on Christian values. He calls for a free-market economy, but rejects fang-and-claw capitalism. He characterizes the majority of Italian environmentalists as green on the outside and red on the inside and urges Italy to adopt nuclear power. He forcefully rejects the Nazi skinhead phenomenon (``Mussolini would have given them a kick in the backside'') and racism (``a supreme imbecility''). He spurns feminism as a leftist tendency.
Both Fini and Berlusconi favor changing the Italian Constitution to create a strong, directly elected president (as in France), in place of today's parliamentary democracy, in which a ceremonial president appoints a prime minister.
The National Alliance won 13.5 percent of the vote in March, partly because Fini was able to capitalize on a Mr. Clean image: MSI politicians, who had been excluded from postwar governments, were virtually untainted by corruption, at a time when the judges were exposing scandal after scandal among the then-ruling parties.
Since joining the government coalition, the National Alliance has been busy occupying key government posts. In addition to its five Cabinet ministers (included one of two deputy prime ministers), it has 12 undersecretaries, four presidents of parliamentary commissions, and numerous political appointees to state-owned companies.
Emboldened by its new power, the National Alliance has gone on the attack. In June, for example, the MSI's spokesman excoriated the major dailies for not ``supporting'' the government. The editors of Corriere della Sera, Il Messagero, La Repubblica, and La Stampa, he said, were standard-bearers for the left and practiced journalism that he defined as ``a bit homosexual.''
``They consider those who criticize to be against the national interest. This is substantially a fascist position,'' says Piero Ignazi, a political science professor at the University of Bologna and an expert on the MSI.
Fini - who less than three years ago on national television showed interviewer Piero Chiambretti his complete collection of Mussolini's writings and who told La Stampa immediately after the March vote that Mussolini was the century's greatest statesman - said Sept. 20 that he wants the MSI to ``evolve into'' the National Alliance and that he wants the transformation to occur without a schism.
The hard core
But hard-liners are already strenuously objecting. The widow of Giorgio Almirante is one such critic. Almirante founded the MSI after World War II and was a Fascist in the Mussolini era. ``Men in whom Giorgio placed great trust, people who today are in power thanks to him, are now spitting on the party,'' says Assunta Almirante.
Other foes of dissolving the MSI are European Parliament deputy Pino Rauti, Italian Parliament deputy Pierantonio (``Mirko'') Tremaglia, and Italian Parliament deputy and Rome City Councilor Teodoro Buontempo. Mr. Buontempo and Mr. Rauti are creating a protest group called ``Young People for the MSI.''
Buontempo, who has frequently been photographed giving the Fascist salute, said this year that those who voted for the MSI in the past did so ``for its continuity with Fascism.''
The influence of fascist thinking in Italy today could be much more pervasive than many Italians would like to admit. Italian Popular Party leader Rocco Buttiglione says not only did Fascism originate in 20th century Italy but it continues to lurk in the Italian mentality.
``There has not yet been an adequate rethinking [of Fascism],'' Mr. Buttiglione said after meeting Fini on Sept. 15. ``And it's not an issue for the professors. It touches the soul of the whole nation. In the absence of this debate, the risk remains that forms of totalitarianism will return.''
``I also believe that this self-awareness hasn't come to the entire Italian populace,'' says Mario Insnenghi, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Venice. ``The roots aren't cut quickly. They go very deep.''