ROME — A specter is haunting Italy: the specter of once-reviled dictator Benito Mussolini’s face on key chains and T-shirts, billboards and wine bottles.
In what supporters say is a bid to curb budding far-right nationalism in the country that helped give birth to modern-day fascism, the Italian parliament had been weighing a bill that would have made disseminating fascist propaganda — including, potentially, images of Mussolini — illegal.
If approved, the proposal would provide for a prison sentence of up to two years for those who convicted for making the fascist Roman salute, praising fascist ideas or selling items that recall Mussolini’s government or the Nazi totalitarian regime.
Another eight months can be tacked on to the sentence if the imagery appears on the internet.
In September, the Italian Chamber of Deputies voted 261 to 122 to approve the bill, proposed by the ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD), led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The bill stalled, however, when the Senate failed to move on the legislation before parliament was dissolved last week in anticipation of national elections this spring.
Still, the very idea of ban on even images of the man who called himself Il Duce ignited a spirited debate over how the government should curb noxious ideas — and whether that was a role for the government to play at all.
PD lawmaker Emanuele Fiano, who drafted the bill, denies it was intended as an attack on free expression, describing it to the Reuters news agency as “a brake on neo-fascist regurgitation and a return of extreme right-wing ideology.”
Mr. Fiano belongs to a Jewish family and told The Washington Times in an interview that the subject is a personal one for him.
“The bill punishes the acts of propaganda, which can also take place through the production, distribution or sale of items or symbols. However it does not punish the simple sale or possession of these items,” Mr. Fiano said.
However, the legislative proposal has come in for a great deal of criticism, and not just from the sellers of Mussolini-themed gadgets and memorabilia. Many center-right parties and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement voted against the bill.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the conservative Northern League and a member of the European Parliament, is one of the strongest opponents to Mr. Fiano’s bill.
“When I first heard about this bill, I thought it was a joke,” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “What’s the point of a law that punishes those who, in 2017, own a photo of Mussolini? It’s crazy.”
“I want to reassure the American readers that in Italy there is no risk of the return of fascism or of other ideologies that were condemned by history. Italy has other priorities today — a lack of jobs, excessive taxation, social security and safety.”
Losing their way
Mr. Salvini said the measure is just one more sign of how once-dominant center-left and socialist parties have lost their way, opening the door for nationalist and populist parties to make unprecedented gains in countries across the continent in recent years.
“The Italian left has lost touch with the current social situation,” he said. “It is no longer able to offer a vision of the future and uses the specter of the past in an attempt to alarm the older voters: those voters who really experienced the tragedy of the Second World War.”
But, he added, “it won’t work.”
The effort to control pro-fascist propaganda in the wake of Italy’s disastrous experiences in World War II has a long pedigree.
In 1952, Interior Minister Mario Scelba signed a law still on the books that prohibits the restoration of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party and punishes anyone who publicly praises principles or methods linked to Mussolini’s ideology. It provides for a prison sentence of between six months and two years.
In the mid-1990s, another interior minister, Nicola Mancino, signed a law that punishes acts and slogans linked to Nazi-fascist ideology, targeting those who incite violence and discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion and nationality. The law also punishes the use of symbols associated with the ultra-right political movements.
Mr. Fiano and his PD allies note that despite the laws that have been on the books for more than six decades, actual prosecutions and convictions are rare. Pro-fascist propaganda can only be deemed illegal under the current laws if it is seen as an attempt to revive Mussolini’s defunct Fascist Party.
Nearly a decade of economic stagnation and political upheaval in Europe following the Great Recession of 2008 has only increased the tensions over social inequality, economic stagnation and mistrust toward ruling parties and institutions.
Add to that the divisions — especially acute here — over the issue of immigration and the treatment of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East who have been washing up on Italy’s shores.
“Democracies should not prohibit the freedom of opinion,” Mr. Fiano contended, but should protect themselves against “the possibility of propagating the worst deadly ideas of the European history.”
The issue is not dead thought the fight over the legislation may be moot — for now.
President Sergio Mattarella dissolved parliament last week in the run-up to hotly contested national elections to be held March 4. Center-right parties linked to controversial 81-year-old former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are expected to make a strong showing, but polls also suggest the country could be a period of uncertainty, with no party able to win a decisive majority.