Northern federalists happy to join Berlusconi in exploiting power vacuum on national stage


Corruption scandals that shattered Italy’s postwar politics paved the way for Lega Nord, writes PADDY AGNEWin Rome

AN ELECTION poster on the website of the Avigliano, Piedmont, branch of the Lega Nord (Northern League) carries a picture of a Red Indian chief, accompanied by the words: “They were not able to put rules and order on immigration and now they live on the reservation.”

Scaremongering in relation to immigration is nothing new to the Northern League, which is nothing if not a party of contrasts.

Although it functions very much as a regionalist party, it nonetheless plays a crucial role in national government. Although the party is rooted in a populist libertarianism, its leaders regularly express xenophobic views on issues such as immigration.

Often Eurosceptic, the Lega does not hesitate to invoke European Union solidarity when it suits. Sometimes anti-clerical in rhetoric, the Lega supports the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

Once secessionist, it now appears to be working for a federalist Italy, in which the federalism would be more fiscal than anything else.

Perhaps the reality about the Lega is that this one-time fringe party has become a skilful political survivor. When it first emerged as a major force on the national scene, at the 1992 elections, the Lega did so on the back of an infamous campaign slogan, Roma Ladrona(Rome the big thief) which indicated a total distrust of corrupt, tax-happy central government.

Yet now, the party gives every impression not only of having learned how to play the Rome game, but also of rather enjoying both power and government positions (there are four Lega ministers in the current Berlusconi centre-right government).

Having come to power at the very moment that the postwar Christian-Democrat-dominated political class was about to be disintegrated by the Tangentopoli corruption scandal, the Lega proved itself brilliantly adept as one of two new forces which filled the vacuum.

The other new force, of course, was media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Not for nothing, despite tensions along the way and despite having brought down Berlusconi’s 1994 government, does the Lega remain the most loyal Berlusconi supporter in the country.

In this special Italian year, marking the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, nothing more underlines the political opportunism of the Lega than its attitude to arguably the most potent symbol of that unity, the Italian tricolour. Lega leader Umberto Bossi once proudly told us that he likes to use the Italian flag to wipe his bottom. This, of course, might be an excellent vote-gathering remark (admittedly made 14 years ago) but it sits awkwardly in the mouth of a man who is now a cabinet minister.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ill-defined collocation of the Lega than its self-generated, folkloric roots. In 1996, four years after a 1992 election success which saw it claim 10.1 per cent of the national vote (it picked up 8.1 per cent in 2008), Bossi staged the symbolic birth of the nation of Padania, when he filled a bottle with water from the source of the Po river at Pian del Re di Crissolo.

Now an annual event, held in September, the Celebration of the Padanian Peoples is intended to underline the supposed ontological difference, if not independence, of the mythical Padania (northern Italy) from the rest of Italy. The problem is, however, that opinion polls regularly report that 55 per cent of Italians believe Padania to be nothing more than a political invention, with no real existence.

Bossi’s Padania might seem to some to be little more than an inspired marketing slogan, but it brilliantly focused on his electorate’s distrust of just about everything which underpins a centralist, unified Italy.

Likewise, when Bossi in 2003 suggested firing at African boat people, referred to as “bingo-bongos”, he was addressing the prejudices of his populist, anti-statist electorate of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. The fact that the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance in 2006 denounced the Lega, accusing it of using “racist and xenophobic political talk”, is simply the price Bossi pays for playing to his electorate.

The greatest irony about the Lega’s very politically incorrect views on immigration is that the cabinet minister who has had to handle the current mainly Tunisian boat people landings in Italy is a senior Lega figure, interior minister Roberto Maroni. Surprise, surprise, his handling of the issue has prompted tensions with EU partners, not to mention criticism from various NGOs and humanitarian organisations. Hardly a coincidence.