Bossi’s – and Berlusconi’s – last shout?

Geoff Andrews
16 July 2003

“Mr. Schulz, I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I will suggest you for the role of kapo. You’d be perfect.”

Silvio Berlusconi to MEP Martin Schulz
2 July 2003 (Day 2 of Italy’s EU presidency)

In the aftermath of Silvio Berlusconi’s clash with Martin Schulz of the German SPD, one of the few people to rush to his defence was his volatile coalition ally, Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League. ‘I am with Silvio’, said Bossi, expressing ‘total solidarity’ in his idiosyncratic manner with Berlusconi, whom he saw as a victim of left wing ‘jacobins’ intent on building a Franco-German Superstate.

Berlusconi’s Nazi jibe was straight out of the repertoire of Bossi himself, whose xenophobia against immigrants and refugees has brought comparisons with Jorg Haider. Bossi has become increasingly outspoken in recent weeks, falling out with his Forza Italia and ‘post-fascist’ National Alliance allies over the watering down of his devolution proposals and local election defeats. Remember, it was Bossi who brought down the first Berlusconi government in 1994, when he withdrew his support after accusing the Italian premier of reneging on election proposals.

This has made Bossi a dangerous and unreliable ally for Berlusconi. It increases his vulnerability as he takes over the presidency of the European Union, and comes on the back of large demonstrations in Italy over his fitness to govern. The Girotondo, a citizens’ movement set up by the film director Nanni Moretti, has held regular demonstrations against his ‘conflicts of interests’ (between his media ownership and political role).

His rushed ‘immunity bill’ prevented him facing prosecution as long as he remains in office. It has been followed by more protests, including the distribution of a citizens’ petition which aims to raise 500,000 signatures and force a referendum to strike down the bill. Italy’s strong peace movement also made life uncomfortable for Berlusconi during the recent war and the left has shown signs of recovery in recent elections across the country.

Berlusconi may begin to feel over the next few weeks that he needs all the friends he can get; but the unpredictable Bossi could once again tip him over the edge.

Boom! Fire the cannons

Bossi is threatening to break rank once again; and this time, in the view of many commentators, government allies and political opponents, he has gone one step too far. After the tragedy in late June of the 60 Africans who died trying to enter Italy when their boat sank near the island of Lampedusa, off the west coast of Sicily, Bossi declared that, in order to stop this happening again, ‘the immigrants must be hunted down, for better or worse. At the second or third warning – boom! Fire the cannons at them’. Embarrassed colleagues tried to keep their distance. ‘It must be the heat,’ said one. ‘Luckily, we are not a country of assassins,’ another.

Bossi’s outburst came at a time when Italy has been facing a refugee crisis, with people arriving at Italian shores from as far away as Liberia, Iraq, Eritrea and Albania. Over the last couple of years Italy has seen a state of emergency, the prosecution of fishermen attempting to help refugees lost at sea and, most significantly, the controversial Bossi-Fini bill, widely seen as Europe’s most punitive anti-immigration legislation. This Act makes it necessary for non-EU citizens to get Italian work permits before entering the country. If their jobs cease, then their work permits end.

Despite the fact that Italy still takes fewer immigrants than most European countries, the debate has been driven by the new populist right, with Bossi in the forefront. ‘Immigration is not a right’, Bossi has said. ‘You have to earn it by working. Those who don’t have jobs should go home’.

Moreover with the erosion of its devolution agenda, hostility to immigration and asylum seekers is now the Northern League’s defining political identity. Bossi himself has become increasingly disconnected from the mainstream. His claim that the North is a victim of ‘Romecentric’ racism, while he pursues vitriolic attacks on immigrants, Sicilians and Muslims, defies credibility. His denunciation of the European Union as alternately ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Fascist’ does little to enhance an idea of European federalism. It was his ‘monstrous Europhobia’ that led Renato Ruggiero, the most experienced and credible member of the government, to resign as Foreign Secretary in January 2002.

Devolution fading

Bossi’s latest outburst follows his growing dismay that his proposals to devolve power on education, policing and health to the twenty regional governments in Italy have been watered down by his coalition partners. He has clashed repeatedly with them, notably with the National Alliance, concerned that Italy’s ‘national interests’ would be compromised by Bossi’s regionalism.

Nor were they enamoured by Bossi’s proposals for four ‘vice-capitals’ of Italy, as a way of taking power away from Rome, or by his declaration that ‘Milan is the real capital of Italy’. His attempts to move the second state TV channel from Rome to Milan has been a subject of much contention. ‘Bizarre’, according to Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the National Alliance. ‘The Northern League is starting to be a hassle’, said Mario Landolfi, another senior National Alliance figure.

Bossi’s devolution proposals have now been submerged into a constitutional bill which maintains the ‘national interests’, with Rome keeping special powers. ‘Devolution’, Bossi said, after the change in the proposals, ‘is now devoid of any meaning.’

The League’s federal roots

The revisions represent a major retreat from the founding ideals of Bossi’s Northern League. A former guitarist, labourer and medical student, Umberto Bossi, born in 1941, came to national prominence in 1984 when he set up the ‘Lombard League’. Like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, formed a decade later, the Lombard League started life as a club. Bossi turned it into a political party when he realised there was wide support for his belief that Italy’s different regional cultures and traditions would be better served by a federation.

At the heart of Bossi’s appeal was his emphasis on territorial identity and opposition to the nation-state. Italians were becoming increasingly disillusioned with what they saw as the inefficiencies of Rome. In the North, Bossi started to appeal to those who felt their own wealth and hard-earned resources were being whittled away by Rome in the interests of ‘lazy Southerners’. The League’s core support comes from small businesses, predominantly young, male, private sector employees, with a strong local identity and a profound distrust of foreigners, the state and the public sector.

By the time of the 1989 European and 1990 local elections the Lombard League’s support had reached almost 20% of the vote in Lombardy. When other leagues achieved success in Piedmont and Veneto, they merged to form the Northern League, with its centre in Milan and Bossi its new leader. The Northern League started to campaign for three Italian republics; North, Centre and South (less daft than it sounds, bearing in mind the fractures of Italian historical development and emerging federalism within the European Union).

Tangentopoli to Berlusconi

The League identified a ‘Northern Question’ in Italian politics, bringing into question the geographical distribution of political power. Its critique of ‘Roma ladrona’ (‘thieving Rome) struck a popular chord after Italy’s ‘Tangentopoli’ (‘Bribesville’) corruption scandals in the early 1990s which brought down the ruling Christian Democrats and former socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.

The Northern League appealed over the heads of politicians. Bossi claimed to be the authentic voice of the bars, piazzas and workplaces; an outsider who brought to politics a different vision of Italy’s constitution. His populism resonated with a growing xenophobia over immigration into Italy from the early 1990s. It has done much to create and sustain a climate of fear toward the ‘extra-comunitari’ or ‘clandestine’ refugees, who were seen as the ‘new Southerners’, taking the jobs and houses of Northern Italians. A multi-cultural society is not only undesirable, but unworkable, according to Bossi: it would lead to the disintegration of local, traditional values, and of cultural and familial continuity.

His main political objective was to replace the catholic-communist polarity, made redundant by Tangentopoli and the pulling down of the Berlin Wall, with a new territorial politics based on Italy’s historic North-South divide. The Northern League was the party that gained most in the immediate aftermath of Tangentopoli, winning the mayoral election in Milan in 1993. For a time, it was the largest single party in the north. Forza Italia was still to be formed; the National Alliance was yet to emerge from the remnants of the Italian Social Movement, its neo-Fascist predecessor, whose support rarely topped 5%.

But the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia Party in early 1994 marked a halt. Berlusconi appealed to much of the same constituency as the League. His own ‘post-modern’ populism, cajoling his voters through his massive media interests, ownership of a top Italian football club, and success as a Milanese entrepreneur, threatened Bossi, who feared – probably correctly – that a straight fight could finish the League. So an electoral pact was formed with Forza Italia and the newly formed National Alliance for the elections of 1994.

Inevitably the Northern League lost ground in the process of reaching an electoral agreement, though it maintained a strong bargaining position within the newly elected first Berlusconi government, insisting that federalism be prioritised and that Berlusconi should resolve his ‘conflicts of interest’ (between his massive media ownership and his role as prime minister). When Berlusconi refused to concede either condition, Bossi led a sustained campaign of opposition from within the coalition, eventually bringing down the government after seven months on a vote of no confidence. He later boasted that he ‘put Berlusconi through hell’.

The Republic of Padania?

The Northern League’s agenda then shifted from federalism towards the ‘secession’ of Northern Italy and the foundation of the Republic of Padania. From June 1995, elected members of the Northern League started to meet in Mantua, the Lombardy town that was to be the capital of the Padanian Republic, in order to produce a constitution for an autonomous northern state. Unperturbed by threats of public prosecution, Bossi succeeded in generating a lot of energy for the idea of Padania, sustained by an annual Miss Padania Contest and other cultural initiatives.

The Padania idea was a crucial factor in the League’s success in the 1996 general election, when it won up to 36% of the vote in some Northern constituencies and became again the largest party in the North. The ‘Carroccio’ (Chariot), as the League is often known, was picking up speed. By standing alone, however, it helped ensure the election of the centre-left and the defeat of the Forza Italia-National Alliance coalition.

After the election, a future ‘Parliament of Padania’ was proposed and the name of the party itself was changed to ‘the Northern League for the Independence of Padania’. An alternative embryonic state was created, with elections to the new parliament and a mock referendum held on the desirability of a Padanian state. Symbolic gestures and events proclaiming Padania included activists taking over the bell tower in St Marks Square, Venice.

Padanian nationalism was short-lived, however. In 1998 the Northern League went through major internal divisions over what constituted the culture, symbols and authentic character of Padania. Opinion polls showed support for the idea was declining.

By the time Berlusconi’s new ‘House of Liberties’ coalition was elected in May 2001, the Northern League had more modest aims, and accepted the idea of national sovereignty in the coalition agreement. Its own support had dwindled considerably – it only just managed to clear the 4% quota which guaranteed seats in Italy’s semi-proportional electoral system. Bossi was appointed Minister for Devolution and Institutional Reforms, but with a limited remit to devolve some schools, health and policing powers to the regions. And he no longer holds the balance of power in the governing coalition: Berlusconi and Fini set the government’s agenda.

Local showdown

Following the differences over the devolution proposals, the Northern League put up independent candidates in local elections, while in areas such as the crucial Friuli-Venezia-Giulia election in early June 2003, Bossi persuaded his allies, after much wrangling, to accept a Northern League candidate for president at the expense of the existing incumbent, Renzo Tondo of Forza Italia. It was a major test of the League’s support. For the unity of the coalition, Bossi had to deliver.

It may not have helped that the League’s candidate for this election was Alessandra Guerra, her surname (“War”) carrying negative associations with Italy’s big peace movement; or that her opponent, Ricardo Illy, was an experienced politician, former mayor of Trieste and a member of Italy’s most popular coffee-producing family. But she was still the clear favourite.

On the last official day of campaigning, predictions were tighter than expected. The town of Pordenone, under the control of one of the few centre-left councils in the region, was targeted. Bossi and Fini spoke in adjoining piazzas, Berlusconi accompanied Guerra to Trieste. In Piazza Municipo, a tired looking Bossi was introduced to a hundred and fifty or so diehard supporters, some with the traditional green flags, neckchiefs and ties. Another fifty or so curious onlookers sipped their aperitivos. His speech was a tour de force of prejudice. He built up his rhetoric to a crescendo of shouts and gestures, even drowning out the sound of the bell-tower behind him.

The theme of his talk was the recurrence in European history of thirty years wars. 1968 was the root cause of our current discontents: the origin of modern individualism, thereby the source of drug addiction, hedonistic capitalism and sexual deviance undermining the family. It was the origin too of the modern left, with its class conflict and opposition to small businesses. It was the beginning of the era of globalisation and the extension of American capitalism. Communists, bankers, hippies, immigrants were all equally culpable in moving away from the mainstream of family values and tradition. Regionalism and nationalism were now obscured.

Sinatra’s moment

As I waited at the end of the platform to interview Bossi in a throng of supporters and henchmen, a middle-aged Sicilian, Saverio Sinatra, pushed his way to the front, and confronted Bossi as he was climbing down. He had been looking for work for months, with two children and a wife to support. Bossi, evidently embarrassed, attempted to persuade the man it was easy to find jobs. ‘It is not true, I have been everywhere’, persisted Sinatra. When I later asked him what he thought of Bossi, he compared him to Pontius Pilate.

I asked Bossi how the election was going. ‘This is a very important election. The North is the gateway for a lot of European trade. The world is changing, and these are the years where we will need to find new solutions with strong leaders. The left and the bankers, with their big interests, have failed. Now we need ideas which are close to the people’s interests.’

‘What about your future relations with Berlusconi?’

‘It is very simple, because whoever makes an agreement with the League will win the election. The agreement with the League makes you win in the North. If you win in the North you win everywhere, because the South is not going anywhere. It does not have economic autonomy. The League is the determining factor which will decide who governs the country. When Berlusconi makes an agreement with us he wins.’

Guerra Finita?

Three days later, the election results in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia showed a heavy defeat for Alessandra Guerra. It has already been marked as a turning-point for the Berlusconi government. It is clear who is getting the blame. A ‘fiasco’ said one paper; ‘humiliation’, said another. It was a ‘serious error’ to go with a candidate from the Northern League, said a Forza Italia spokesman. A ‘cold shower’ for Bossi, said the left-wing Manifesto.

Bossi accused his allies of not supporting Guerra. ‘We always win when we go alone’, he said ominously, pointing to a couple of small town councils that the League held onto, but with clear implications for the future of the coalition.

Berlusconi’s difficulties are multiplying. The new ‘parliamentary immunity’ legislation rushed through was widely seen as a ‘hollow victory’ and, following his rough ride in the European Parliament, things are not likely to get any easier. With immigration and asylum seekers high on the list of Italy’s priorities during its six-month presidency, Bossi could still be a vocal and awkward force as the dark figure in Berlusconi’s back yard. While he no longer holds the balance of power electorally in Italy’s governing coalition, the signs are that he is now out of control and could make one last stand. If the wheels of the Carroccio are finally giving way, Il Cavaliere could also be in trouble.

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