ROME, Italy — Ignazio La Russa, who was elected speaker of the Italian senate Thursday, is a veteran of the far-right who collects fascist memorabilia as a hobby.
The 75-year-old co-founded the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party with Giorgia Meloni, whose victory in elections last month put her on course to become prime minister.
As speaker, La Russa now has the role of guiding legislation through parliament’s upper house, but is also expected to wield power behind the scenes.
Meloni hailed him as a “patriot, a servant of the state” who for her party “is an irreplaceable point of reference, a friend, a brother, an example for generations of activists and leaders.”
The senate opening ceremony was presided over by Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, a 92-year-old senator-for-life. In an emotional address she noted that she was presiding over the Senate as Italy soon marks the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome, which brought Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to power.
The Brothers of Italy party, which won the most votes in the September 25 elections and has its origins in a neo-fascist movement, is to head Italy’s first far-right-led government since the end of World War II.
Segre didn’t refer to the party by name in her speech, but she said Italian voters had expressed their will at the ballot box.
La Russa has been a part of the nationalist Italian right since the end of the 1960s, when his long hair and beard prompted writer Umberto Eco to compare him to Rasputin.
But politics is also in his blood. His landowner father, Antonino La Russa, was a local official in Sicily for the National Fascist Party of dictator Benito Mussolini.
And after World War II, he was elected MP and then senator for its successor organization, the Italian Social Movement (MSI), set up by Mussolini’s followers.
‘Different view of history’
Ignazio La Russa, born on July 18, 1947, in Paterno, near Catania in Sicily, has Benito as a middle name.
He has defended the MSI, saying it was “the party of those who lost the war, but their great merit was to never think of terrorism or rebellion against the democratic choice.”
“Of course, they had a different view of history, but they built a party that could not be more democratic,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper earlier this year.
The family moved to Milan when La Russa was 13, and he still lives in the northern city, the capital of the Lombardy region.
During his studies — he trained as a lawyer — La Russa was an activist with the MSI’s youth wing and at 38, became an MSI regional councilor in Lombardy.
From the early 1990s, he was in parliament first for the MSI, and when it was dissolved for its successor, National Alliance, then as part of a right-wing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi.
La Russa served as defense minister during Berlusconi’s 2008-2011 government, where he is credited with persuading the then premier to take part in the war in Libya that ended the Kadhafi regime.
Heirs to Il Duce
While rejecting the autocratic nature of the Mussolini regime, La Russa — like Meloni — has maintained a level of ambiguity about his party’s neo-fascist roots.
When his brother Romano, head of security in the Lombardy region, drew criticism during the election campaign by giving the fascist salute at the funeral of a far-right activist, La Russa said it was a “serious mistake.”
Then on television a few days later, he asserted that “we are all heirs of Il Duce [Mussolini], in the sense that we are heirs of our fathers and our grandparents.”
He often uses humor to brush off criticism of his views. In February 2020, mocking social distancing rules recommended to protect against coronavirus, he urged on Twitter: “Do not shake hands with anyone, the infection is lethal.”
“Use the Roman salute, anti-virus and anti-microbial.” He later deleted the message.
In 2018, Corriere visited his Milan home and filmed his collection of fascist relics, which include statues and medals of Mussolini, photos and books on the black shirts and colonial Italy.
Italy’s new government have just picked as Senate speaker – second highest-ranking office of the Italian Republic – Ignazio La Russa who has Mussolini busts and fascist memorabilia at home.
— Antonello Guerrera (@antoguerrera) October 12, 2022
He is also a fan of American history, naming his three sons after Native American tribes or warriors: Antonino Geronimo, Lorenzo Cochis, and Leonardo Apache.
Party leader Meloni was herself a member of the youth branches of MSI and the National Alliance and founded Brothers of Italy in 2012, keeping the tricolor flame symbol of the MSI in her party logo.
During the campaign, amid Democratic warnings that she represented a danger to democracy, Meloni insisted that the Italian right had “handed fascism over to history for decades now,” and had condemned racial laws and the suppression of democracy.