Former neo-fascist elected speaker

Rome - Former neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini, an ally of prime minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi, was elected speaker of Italy's Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday.

Fini, 56, became the first politician with roots in the Italian Social Movement (MSI) to reach the third rung in the Italian hierarchy, winning 335 votes of the 611 cast in the fourth round of polling in the lower house.

In his victory speech before the chamber, the head of the right-wing National Alliance renewed a pledge to forge a more representative legislature, adding that he would respect the rights of opposition lawmakers.

"Like my predecessors...I am also partisan, convinced of my values, but it is clear to me that the role of chamber speaker demands rigorous respect for lawmakers' equal rights," said Fini, dressed in a dapper grey suit and pink tie.

Fini also paid homage to Pope Benedict XVI, whom he described as the "spiritual guide of the great majority of Italians."

While stating that secularism is an immutable principle of any modern democracy, Fini underscored "the fundamental role of the Christian religion."

A heavy smoker, Fini also said one of his first acts as speaker would be to create a smoking room in the Chamber of Deputies.

The Bologna native merged his National Alliance with Berlusconi's newly formed People of Freedom party to stand in mid-April elections.

In coalition with the anti-immigration Northern League, they defeated the centre-left Democratic Party by some nine percentage points.

Observers say that by throwing his lot in with Berlusconi, Fini appears doomed to playing second fiddle to the 71-year-old media magnate.

"He is a leader with a great future behind him ... now resigned to playing the role of Berlusconi's heir for life," the La Repubblica newspaper wrote ahead of the elections.

Fini renounced his links to Italy's fascist past in 1995, creating the National Alliance as a splinter of the MSI.

Three years earlier he was still calling the dictator Benito Mussolini "the greatest statesman of the 20th century."

In 2003, Fini condemned fascism as the "absolute evil" and said Mussolini's wartime republic was "a shameful chapter in the history of Italy."

He served as Berlusconi's deputy prime minister from 2001 to 2006 and as foreign minister for the final two years of the last Berlusconi government.

Renato Schifani, a close protege of Berlusconi, was elected Senate speaker on Tuesday.

Berlusconi has said he would take the oath of office on May 9 or 10.

sign up