Rachel Sanderson in Milan
February 2, 2011
The firebrand leader of Italy’s Northern League enters a fog-bound town near Milan to the usual cheers and organ music that greet his arrival everywhere across Italy’s industrial heartlands.
Umberto Bossi, a charismatic figure who founded the party 25 years ago, with the purpose of pushing for the north of Italy’s secession from the south, expounds for a few minutes on the superiority of his northern audience before coming to a finale.
“People thought I was crazy when I started out: it seemed impossible to change the country. But now everything is ready. When the federalism vote passes in a few days there will be dancing in every League stronghold in the country,” he says.
Thursday’s vote in the Italian parliament on whether to give greater tax-raising powers to municipalities is important not only to Mr Bossi but crucial to Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s beleaguered prime minister, whose political survival may hinge on the outcome.
Mr Berlusconi’s first government in 1994 collapsed a few months after its Northern League coalition partners pulled out.
Roberto Maroni, interior minister and a lieutenant of Mr Bossi, said on Monday that losing would see the League withdraw from the coalition and force elections. “If federalism doesn’t pass, we’re all going to go home,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
That so much weight is being given to a minor reform when Italy arguably faces much greater economic challenges is emblematic of Mr Berlusconi’s depleted authority and Mr Bossi’s determination to exploit it.
Alessandra Ghisleri, a pollster, says if Italy went to elections today, the Northern League, Italy’s third largest party after Berlusconi’s Party of Freedom and the opposition left, would take about 13 per cent of the national vote – up from 8 per cent at the last count in 2008.
In a sign of Mr Bossi’s growing prominence, the League has begun to gain support in Italy’s south, but it remains by definition a party of the north campaigning on two perceived issues of concern in the region: the corruption of the south and immigration.
In the Veneto region the Northern League has nearly 40 per cent of the vote. Its bastions are Turin, Milan and Verona. It is this area, with its indistinct boundaries, which Mr Bossi almost three decades ago called Padania, giving it its own history based largely on myth and folklore.
Mr Bossi says the inhabitants of Padania are descended not from ancient Romans in the south, who he argues were “pigs” and had slaves to do their work, but from “superior” Celts, who did the work themselves. Paul Furlong, professor of European studies at Cardiff University, says out of this populist myth-making Mr Bossi has done what few populist politicians have managed in Europe.
“He has sustained grassroots fervour, even anger, on the basis of some fairly unpleasant attitudes, but has also maintained a position as a major coalition partner,” Prof Furlong said.
At the same time, against a backdrop of sex scandals paralysing Mr Berlusconi’s government in Rome, the League has built its reputation as the only “real political party left in Italy that can mobilise support and get things done”, Prof Furlong adds.
This transformation from fringe party to serious political force is reflected in the rise of the League’s new generation: clean-cut, energetic young leaders who are active in the regions and taking steps to improve healthcare and transport, issues that get little airing in Rome.
Luca Zaia, governor of Veneto and a rising League star, was voted Italy’s most popular mayor in a national Governance 2010 poll, having burnished his reputation with his handling of last year’s floods.
The party’s influence is also bolstered by Mr Bossi’s political ties with Giulio Tremonti, Italy’s economy minister and a possible future prime minister.
Mr Tremonti, who although a member of Mr Berlusconi’s party is from Lombardy, makes no secret of his links with Mr Bossi.
Duncan McDonnell, a Turin university lecturer and expert on the Northern League, says a win in Thursday’s fiscal federalism vote will buttress this growing support for the League throughout the Italian system, paving the way for the party to do “tremendously well” in the next elections.
“With Berlusconi giving the impression of someone who is unable to govern, the League will be able to present themselves as the party of action, the party that achieved its goals,” he says.