Neo-Fascist may be Rome's next mayor


ROME -- He could be a dentist or a promising bank clerk, with his well-ironed shirts, thin-rimmed spectacles and cool, serious air, the kind of 40-ish yuppie many a Roman matron would be glad to have as a son-in-law.

On the posters, with his jacket slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, and on television, he looks highly respectable, appealing and reassuring -- and Gianfranco Fini, leader of Italy's extreme right-wing neo-Fascist party, next week may be mayor of Rome.

The run-off between Mr. Fini and his Green left-wing opponent, Francesco Rutelli, in the second round of the municipal elections tomorrow is going to be extremely close.

According to the latest poll, published Wednesday, Mr. Rutelli is leading by 53.5 percent to Mr. Fini's 46.5 percent.

But when neo-Fascists are concerned, polling is tricky, because some people hide the truth: Italy's top pollsters greatly overestimated Mr. Rutelli's lead in the first round, Nov. 21.

Mr. Fini has made a career out of being what the Italians call "neo-Fascism in a double-breasted suit." It is the respectable face of neo-Fascism, the other being its black-leather-clad, skin-headed, immigrant-baiting thugs.

"Fascism," he claims, "has a tradition of honesty, correctness and good government."

As far as is known, Mr. Fini has never beaten anyone up, shaved his head or worn a black shirt as one of his close associates has done for years.

But he regards Benito Mussolini, Italy's World War II Fascist dictator, as "the greatest figure in world history," refuses to repudiate Fascist ideas and has been known to make the stiff-armed Fascist salute.

He is the heir of many thousands of votes left homeless after the implosion of the Christian Democrats, the party that has dominated Rome since the war.

They come from huge sections of the population who flourished on the old habits of corruption and patronage -- such as the builders who made vast fortunes by ringing the city with a concrete jungle, buying construction licenses with huge bribes or building without any at all; or the bureaucrats who fear losing their privileges and cushy jobs.

Flatly opposed to divorce and abortion, he will reap votes from ultra-Catholics, such as one group that has been circulating pamphlets attacking Mr. Rutelli as the "king of abortion, borne on the shoulders of Communists, responsible for the evil culture that surrounds us."

Many more, and much bigger, Catholic organizations have opted for Mr. Rutelli, while Rome's Cardinal Camillo Ruini, whose favored candidate got fewer votes than a porno star in the first round, has had to follow the example of more modern colleagues and tell the faithful to vote "according to their conscience."

Even more desirable in the son-in-law stakes, Mr. Rutelli appeared far ahead of all rivals until Nov. 21.

Handsome, likable and much more affable, he has been working much longer to raise support.

Mr. Fini says he knows the city's immense problems, but Mr. Rutelli knows the city like the back of his hand, can spout statistics at the drop of a hat and plans to be a full-time mayor. Mr. Fini would share his duties with other political matters.

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