It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. In downtown Milan, Silvio Berlusconi had just finished whipping up the crowds at a party rally. Suddenly a man (later identified as a 42-year-old electronics expert in psychiatric care for at least a decade) lunged at the premier and hit him in the face with a souvenir miniature of the Milan cathedral. Minutes later, photos of Berlusconi’s bloodied nose and jaw were zinging round the globe. His nose broken, lip split and two teeth fractured, the prime minister was expected to remain in the hospital at least a couple of days. From what we know, this was the kind of random attack that can happen to a politician anywhere, anytime. But opinion about Berlusconi is so polarized and so tense–even within his own party–that his supporters immediately blamed a “climate of violence” stirred up by the opposition. In truth, the hate talk today comes largely from the Berlusconi camp. For example: the premier himself recently threatened to “strangle” the authors of TV and literary fictions about the Mafia for giving Italy (and himself) a bad name. It was “a bad day for Italy,” declared lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini, urging “all political forces to form a common front so that Italy does not relive its years of violence.”

Gianfranco Fini is one of those enigmas that make Italian politics inscrutable to all but Italians. Fifty-seven years old, a youthful militant and later party chief of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), he used to be known for statements like “Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the century.” That was in 1994. In 1995 he led a historic party congress that rebranded the MSI as the “post-Fascist” National Alliance (AN) and declared that the anti-Fascists had been “essential in bringing Italy back the democratic values Fascism had violated.” It was quite an about-face, but then the 1990s were a time when just about all Italian politicians were repudiating something. The end of the cold war had abruptly snuffed out the raison d’être not only of the anti-Communist cold warriors who had long ruled Italy–the Christian Democrats and the Socialists–but also that of the Italian Communist Party. As the old parties withered, Berlusconi patched together a new kind of power, based on his money, his control of the media and his alliances with two previously unpresentable right-wing factions: the racist and xenophobic Northern League and the neo-Fascists.

For a long time, no one to the left of Berlusconi took Fini seriously. On a visit to Israel in 2003, during Berlusconi’s second government, Fini declared that the Fascist racial laws had been an “absolute evil of the twentieth century.” The comment was dismissed as opportunism by Italians on both left and right, although inside his own party, a faction led by Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of the dictator) was incensed enough to found a breakaway right-wing movement.

Fast-forward to the April 2008 elections, won by Berlusconi. Just weeks earlier, Fini had folded AN into the big man’s just-minted People of Liberty party. As the effective party No. 2, Fini became president of the Chamber of Deputies, one of the highest national offices. Over the next year and a half, as Berlusconi–mired in sex scandals, an acrimonious and very expensive divorce settlement and even accusations of Mafia collusion–has abandoned all pretense he is governing Italy rather than simply protecting himself and his business interests, Fini has rather astonishingly emerged as the most farsighted and democratic-minded right-wing politician in Italy. It’s as if the office he holds has rubbed off some of its weight and gravity on him–a weight and gravity sorely lacking in Berlusconi and his anti-immigrant Northern League allies.

It helps to understand that Italy has never had a real conservative party. The all-powerful Christian Democrats, who governed from 1945 to 1992, talked of social “solidarity,” rewarded their voters with fiscally irresponsible favors and didn’t give a hoot about market forces, or law and order for that matter. “After the experience of Fascism, Italy, like Germany, excluded the right,” says historian Sergio Luzzatto, “and even today the word ‘right wing’ remains taboo. While the French have no problem being de droite, nobody in Italy has the courage to say they’re di destra.”

Although Berlusconi seemed to be a neoliberal when he came to power, he proved to be interested in only one market: the commercial TV he monopolized. Now Italy’s economy is floundering, with small businesses going belly up, 2 million jobless and no prospects at all for the young (up to 50 percent of young people are unemployed in some regions, and university graduates are fleeing the country). While across Europe governments are pouring funds into research, universities and the knowledge economy, and into green and sustainable growth, Italy is doing nothing. Berlusconi, at the mercy of his Northern League allies, has passed more blame-the-victim bills to make life miserable for immigrants than measures to prop up the economy.

Fini, meanwhile, has understood that immigrants not only make an economic contribution as workers and as business owners but that if they could vote, many of them might vote for a man much like himself. While the Northern League rails against blacks and Muslims, he has proposed that immigrants be allowed to vote in local elections, that children of legal immigrants born in Italy get citizenship and that the waiting period for adult citizenship be shortened.

While Berlusconi has shamelessly chased Vatican backing with bills to make artificial life-support mandatory and to obstruct in vitro fertilization and the “morning after” pill, Fini has criticized such measures “based on ethical-religious dogmas,” in his words, because they conflict with “the secular nature of our institutions.” His think tank, Fondazione Farefuturo, has made the separation of church and state one of its leitmotifs, arguing that it is essential in a multicultural society like twenty-first-century Italy. Fini has also has repeatedly defended the judiciary branch whenever Berlusconi has attacked “Communist judges”–as he did in a highly embarrassing rant at the European Popular Party congress in Bonn on December 10.

According to Paul Ginsborg, the pre-eminent historian of contemporary Italy, Fini represents an alternative right wing, “more respectful of democratic structures and more open on matters like immigration…. And to put it in a nutshell, you might say it’s almost more important for Italy to have a decent right wing than a decent left.”

Recently–virtually alone in his party–Fini has begun to hint out loud that Emperor Berlusconi has no clothes. Not long ago, conversing with a judge on the podium at a conference before a microphone both thought was switched off, Fini was heard to say: “He doesn’t know the difference between leadership and absolute monarchy…he thinks popular consensus…gives him a sort of immunity from any other kind of control. I told him in private, remember, they cut off the head of [Louis XVI], so take it easy.” When various outraged exponents of the People of Liberty called for Fini to resign, he pointed out that his private comments were no different from what he has been saying about Berlusconi in public. It’s true.

But the question–as Stalin once asked of the Pope–is, How many divisions does Fini command? At present, his backing looks too thin to hope to wrest control of the party from Berlusconi. The prime minister’s decline is likely to be “long and poisonous,” predicted another Italian historian, Miguel Gotor. It’s not that opposition is lacking: an amazing 3 million Italians came out to vote in the recent primary elections for the center-left Democratic Party, and in early December, hundreds of thousands participated in a “No-B Day” demonstration in Rome organized on Facebook by unaffiliated young people. But as long as the political opposition remains divided by genuine disagreements and sectarian disputes, it simply can’t channel the widespread disapproval of the government.

Unhappy is the country that has need of heroes, says the tormented Galileo in Brecht’s drama. Certainly, no country in Western Europe is more unhappy these days than Italy.