The demonstrators who’ve been disrupting the progress of the Olympic torch around the world have found an unwelcome ally in the Italian far right. Last month, Forza Nuova cashed in on the popularity of the ‘flame of shame’ protests to organise a rally of their own outside the Chinese embassy in Rome. Their leader, Roberto Fiore, expressing outrage at the treatment of the Tibetans, called for the immediate severing of diplomatic relations between China and Italy and a boycott of the games by Italian athletes. The ulterior motive for his unlikely concern for Tibet isn’t hard to make out: one of his campaign slogans calls for ‘un’Italia senza extracomunitari’ (an Italy without non-Europeans, which would mean getting rid of the 200,000 or so Chinese immigrants who live here).

A few days ago, walking through the Piazza Repubblica in the town where I live an hour or so north of Rome, I stumbled across a small group of Forza Nuova supporters who were just setting out on a march. There were only about a dozen of them, all young men, waving their neofascist banners, the letters FN emblazoned in black italic script on a red and white background. For about half a second I felt like Isherwood in Berlin in the early 1930s. Then I reminded myself that the most right-wing of the 16 parties competing for my neighbours’ votes at the beginning of next week has no chance of coming to power. In the 2006 general election, Forza Nuova was a member of the Alternativa Sociale, a coalition headed by Alessandra Mussolini which won less than 0.7 per cent of the vote – about the same as the BNP in Britain in 2005 – and no seats in either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate. Still, for a party nobody votes for, they make a lot of noise.

Not as much noise, however, as the lot who are leading the polls, Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom), his old Forza Italia with a facelift. A couple of days after Forza Nuova’s motley march-past, a PDL candidate took over Piazza San Giuseppe to harangue a small crowd of supporters and passers-by. It was a far more modest affair than Berlusconi’s big-city extravaganzas: no young lovelies in their scanties, just a man with a megaphone. ‘Security is the first right of every citizen,’ he proclaimed, before accusing the left of stealing ideas from the right. He had a point: Walter Veltroni’s centre-left Partito Democratico is promising tax cuts and a drop in public spending. Veltroni, until very recently the mayor of Rome, openly acknowledges Tony Blair as a role model, though unlike Berlusconi he’s never invited him on holiday.

Berlusconi, meanwhile, says he’ll cut taxes and red-tape and spend the money on such (vanity) projects as building a bridge to Sicily and clinging onto Alitalia, which is currently losing a million euros a day. (The idea that the country needs a flag-carrier airline is as ridiculous, if not as deadly, as Mussolini’s notion 80 years ago that it needed a few new colonies. Perhaps some arrangement could be made with British Airways, whereby BA fly the planes but outsource their baggage handling to Milan.) Less clear is what either Berlusconi or Veltroni intends to do about the national debt. The largest in Europe, it stands at €1.6 trillion, or 104 per cent of GDP, and costs €70 billion a year in interest payments.

The two chief contenders for the unenviable job of being Italy’s prime minister don’t only have similar policies; their electoral tactics have a fair amount in common, too. Soon after these elections were announced, following the collapse of Romano Prodi’s coalition government in January, Veltroni declared that the PD – created last year by the merger of the Democratici della Sinistra with seven smaller parties – would be running more or less alone. In 2006, the DS were at the head of a ramshackle alliance of every party that could be bundled together under the label ‘left’. Prodi’s government fell when the centrist Popolari UDEUR withdrew after its leader had to resign from the cabinet because he was being investigated on corruption charges. Reckoning he was likely to lose in any case – the electorate had lost patience with Prodi after only 20 months in power, as if that was plenty of time to sort out Berlusconi’s mess – Veltroni decided instead to do without his troublesome partners. Like the creation of the PD, this is part of the centre-left’s attempt to turn the system into something closer to a manageable bipartisan one.

Soon afterwards, it transpired that Berlusconi isn’t running with all of his old allies either. Alessandra Mussolini’s on-board, but Forza Nuova is not. More significantly, the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro are going it alone, with the unsurprising support of the Vatican. Without the Catholic vote, Berlusconi’s chances are diminished, if not by enough to stop him topping the ballot. By the time this issue of the LRB is published, he’ll almost certainly have won.* He’s very unlikely to have an outright majority, however: the cobbling together of coalitions has not been abandoned, only postponed.

To see who I would vote for, were I able to, I filled out a questionnaire on La Repubblica’s website, which asked for my views on a range of issues from abortion, civil partnerships, assisted reproduction and euthanasia to immigration, nuclear power, privatisation, unions, taxation and the war in Iraq. Apparently I fall somewhere between the Sinistra l’Arcobaleno (a ‘rainbow’ coalition of left-wing parties) and the Sinistra Critica. Neither has any real chance, so the question was doubly academic. I made a mental note to register as an overseas voter before Brown calls a general election in Britain. It was, after all, the votes of Italians abroad that tipped the Senate Prodi’s way in 2006.

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Vol. 30 No. 9 · 8 May 2008

Thomas Jones describes the far-right legionaries of Forza Nuova who took sneaky advantage of the touring Olympic torch fiasco as unwelcome allies for the no doubt politically sounder folk who have been doing their anti-Chinese bit around the place these past few weeks (LRB, 24 April). But if there are going to be protests in the streets as the by now ludicrously misnamed ‘flame of harmony’ is paraded internationally, according to some geographical scheme which I for one am quite unable to follow, how much more encouraging it would be if they were aimed, not specifically at the Chinese, but at the monstrous expansion and corruption of the whole Olympic idea. At the bad taste, among other things, of perpetuating a ritual such as the circulation of the torch, which appears to have been the brainwave of the Nazi Party in 1936, on the occasion of the games in Berlin which have so often been condemned as a gross politicisation of what had hitherto existed as a more or less sporting event. Carried, as the torch surely would have been that time around, by extravagantly beautiful and athletic young German men, spectators would at least have been spared the weird episode of street theatre offered to those who turned out in London in hopes of seeing such co-opted celebrities as an ageing and unfit television news reader or a pretty young presenter from Blue Peter. Could grotesquerie go further? Only perhaps had our own minister for the Olympics, the not obviously very sporty Tessa Jowell, been persuaded to get into her running gear and taken her chances with the Chinese torch-minders as they fought their unlovely way through the streets of the capital. I seem to remember that when the 2012 Games were awarded to London, one of the great benefits we were promised was that, Olympic glory being what it is, the nation as a whole would now be feeling a sudden urge to get off the couch and start training in eventual expectation of a medal. Ms Jowell passed up the opportunity to set the example and project an enticing trailer for the big feature in four years’ time. But then she has other things on her mind: notably the horrendous extent to which the estimated cost of the London Olympics has grown ever since the day in 2005 when it was announced they would be held here. Horrendous not least because it is now apparent that the original estimate was kept deliberately and misleadingly low by a government so sold on the vision thing that it preferred that the rest of us go around with our eyes shut.

Bill McIntosh
London N7

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