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Spartaco Perini spoke overwhelmingly about his time as a second world war resistance fighter in the days before he died. The founder of one of Italy’s first antifascism groups in Colle San Marco, a hamlet of Ascoli Piceno in the central Marche region, he was lauded by the Allied forces for his role as a fearless informant, work that helped to liberate Europe from the Nazis and end Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship. But he had one regret.
“In his last few days, he spoke a lot about the great things the partisans did to restore freedom and bring about democracy,” said Pietro Perini, the partisan’s son and president of the Ascoli Piceno unit of Anpi, an anti-fascism organisation. “But he also felt they made one error – and that was not to have eradicated it [fascism] completely.”
Spartaco Perini died in 2001, aged 82. Two decades later, Brothers of Italy, the descendant of a party formed in 1946 by the lingering supporters of Mussolini, is running Marche after winning regional elections last September, ending 25 years of leftwing rule. It was a significant victory for the party, which in recent years has steadily moved from the political fringes to being neck-and-neck with Matteo Salvini’s far-right League as Italy’s biggest parties in the latest opinion polls.
Its leader, Giorgia Meloni, who started out in the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), its postwar predecessor, is now readying to succeed Mario Draghi as prime minister in the 2023 general elections, having kept her party out of his very broad coalition.
A savvy politician, Meloni has endeavoured to remould her party, pitching it as a conservative champion of patriotism. In her autobiography, I Am Giorgia, she wrote that she “does not belong to the cult of fascism”.
But there are signs in Marche that the party – which maintain’s MSI’s tricolored flame as its logo – has not fully severed links with its past.
In April, the Brothers of Italy mayor of Ascoli Piceno donated fascist comics to schools. A few days later, the national holiday to mark Italy’s liberation from fascism, the president of Marche’s education department sent a letter to students equating fascists with partisans like Spartaco Perini. “We should remember the war dead without distinction of which side they were on,” he wrote.
“We’ve always had fascism apologists, but now some are in positions of power,” said Perini’s son.
One of the first policy moves from Marche’s new administration was to close reception and support facilities for immigrants. Similar to Umbria, a former leftwing stronghold that fell to the League in 2019, it also wants to ban health clinics from providing the abortion pill. A Brothers of Italy politician recently suggested that women should stay at home to look after the children while men lay down the rules. Party leaders are seeking to adopt a measure that would restrict social housing to Italians.
“In this region there has been a cultural, social and political change, some of which is being translated into measures,” said Antonio Mastrovincenzo, a former Marche councillor with the centre-left Democratic party, who accepts the weaknesses of the left lay the groundwork for the region’s pivot to the right. “We made mistakes and people never forgave us,” he added.
The first push towards change came in August 2016, when central Italy, including parts of the Marche region, was struck by an earthquake that killed almost 300 people. At the time, Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister and ex-leader of the Democratic party, promised to immediately rebuild the shattered towns. But many of the affected places still lie abandoned.
The League and Brothers of Italy also played on immigration, especially when 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro was allegedly murdered by an illegal immigrant in the city of Macerata in early 2018. Days later, and just weeks away from national elections, Luca Traini, a far-right extremist, wounded six African migrants in a shooting rampage that he claimed was revenge for the murder.
“Traini became the battle horse for rightwing forces to affirm that it was the politics of the left that brought about this situation,” said Lina Caraceni, a former Macerata councillor for integration and representative of the local unit of the privately-owned association, Refugees Welcome Italia.
“They threw out all the projects that the previous administration did – Macerata was one of the first places in Italy that adopted Sprar [a system to house migrants], and now that’s gone. There has also been more racism – nobody wants to rent homes to foreigners.”
For Paolo Berizzi, a journalist with La Repubblica who has written extensively about the extreme right in Italy, the strongest sign of change in Marche came on 27 October 2019, when a commemorative dinner was held to mark the anniversary of Mussolini’s “march on Rome”. The dinner was attended by Francesco Acquaroli, now the president of Marche, along with a host of other Brothers of Italy mayors.
“This gives you an idea of how Brothers of Italy deals with the nostalgic right – not only do they not distance themselves from it, but they celebrate it,” said Berizzi, adding that Marche had become “a kind of laboratory for the right which founded its roots in the fascist tradition”.
Brothers of Italy usually competes in local, regional and general elections in coalition with the League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. The alliance runs 15 out of 20 Italian regions. Meloni, having eclipsed Salvini in popularity, is now very much in charge, meaning that if they compete together in 2023 and win, she has a good chance of becoming prime minister.
“The left has been weak at intercepting the rightwing rise across Italy,” said Berizzi. “And herein lies the danger. The country that produced, but also defeated, fascism could end up being led by a party with links to that history.”
Brothers of Italy’s arrival in Marche has also helped embolden extreme right groups such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova, said Perini. “Whenever we do a demonstration, we find swastikas on the walls the next day, and fans of the Ascoli Piceno football team celebrate each goal with the fascist salute. The extremists know they can do this now without fear of punishment,” he added.
Perini worries about the outcome of the next national elections. “I have no faith that things can change. The worst thing is, it seems the efforts of the partisans were all for nothing.”