ROME (Reuters) - The heir to Italy’s fascist movement, the National Alliance, dissolved on Sunday to merge with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservatives to unite the centre-right, despite lingering rivalries between their leaders.
The National Alliance (AN), the second biggest force in the governing coalition, held its last congress in Rome at the weekend and approved folding the party into Berlusconi’s People of Freedom bloc.
Commentators say AN leader Gianfranco Fini, 57, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, is waiting in the wings to take over from Berlusconi, 72, should he decide to retire from politics.
Addressing 1,800 AN delegates, Fini said Berlusconi was the leader of the centre-right but made clear his allies wanted to have their say in the new party, which will hold its first congress next weekend.
“Berlusconi knows that his strong and recognised leadership can in no way become a personality cult,” Fini said.
“We must guarantee that the People of Freedom is not the party of one person, but of one country.”
AN has been an ally of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party since the mid-1990s and ran under a single banner with him in last year’s election, helping the media tycoon win a landslide victory and a third term in office.
While Fini had initially seemed reluctant to dissolve AN, the merger caps his 15-year drive to shed the post-fascist tag and transform his party into a mainstream conservative force.
The National Alliance was born in 1994 as the successor of the Italian Social Movement begun by Benito Mussolini’s supporters after he died in 1945 and his fascist movement was outlawed.
Well-dressed and well-spoken, Fini once described Mussolini as the greatest statesman of the 20th century. But he has since distanced himself from AN’s more unsavoury supporters and broken up with hardliners.
He has also gone a long way to rub out some the darkest chapters of Mussolini’s rule, branding racial laws which discriminated against Jews as “a shameful page in our history.”
His efforts to polish the image of Italy’s right were rewarded last year when he was appointed speaker of the lower house after Berlusconi swept back to power, and AN won four ministers in his cabinet.
The party got a further boost when one of his own, Gianni Alemanno, became mayor of Rome, the first time a right-winger has run the capital since Mussolini’s years.
“We have come to terms with our past, we have said clear words of condemnation over Italian history between the two wars. Today a long chapter in the life of Italy’s post-war right comes to an end,” Fini said.
Fini’s measured stance has at times put him at odds with the often outspoken outbursts of the Northern League, the other main party in the government, and with Berlusconi.
An increasingly respected figure even among the centre-left opposition, Fini has been critical of the government’s crackdown on illegal immigration and of Berlusconi’s growing use of emergency decrees to rush legislation through parliament.
Editing by Janet Lawrence