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Lega Nord's last temptation: anti-politics in the time of Grillo

The rise of Grillo's 5 Star Movement marks Italy's ongoing disaffection towards its political caste. In the early 1990s, the Northern League gave voice to a similar feeling. But times have changed. Surfing on a wave of anti-politics with no sound political programme may be a dangerous strategy.

Asked to comment on the exponential growth of Beppe Grillo's 5 Star Movement (M5S) a few days before Italy's February 24-25 elections, Lega Nord (Northern League) leader Roberto Maroni dismissed the former comedian's political creation as a short-lived experiment. Admittedly, the League and the M5S do have something in common. Founded in the early 1990s in response to a scandal-ridden political stage, the League sought to give voice to a growing disenchantment towards politics in a way that would make it somewhat akin to Grillo's own movement. But, so goes Maroni's tale, while the M5S's rhetoric does not go beyond a universal condemnation of politics as such, the League combined anti-politics with a political project.

Upon its rise to the political stage in 1992, the League embodied a destructive impetus that was nonetheless sustained by an (arguably) sound programme: turning the country into a federal State and abandoning Rome's corrupted core to the benefit of Italy's North. The M5S and the League can only share a sense of dissonance towards the political establishment – but nothing beyond that. Surfing on the wave of people's discontent without a plan is a dangerous strategy. For if Grillo will prove incapable of meeting his promises, the M5S will sink back into anonymity.

The prophecy refuted

 On February 26, when Italy woke up to its parliamentary gridlock, equating the idea of anonymity with the M5S was virtually impossible. Grillo's movement scored an astonishing 25.55% in the Chamber of Deputies and a 23.79% in the Senate, turning from Italy's latest political anomaly into its second most voted party, overtaking Berlusconi's bloc and falling shortly behind Bersani's centre-left. As the night went on and results began to consolidate, the political caste realised it would have to reckon with an inconvenient truth. Italy's traditional bi-polarism had dissolved in the face of a movement which had presented itself as a viable alternative to the country's traditional coalitions.

 By coalescing upon himself Italy's disaffection towards politics, Grillo could appeal to voters who'd grown tired of a corrupted establishment and promote something that would putatively stand beyond it altogether. That is not to downplay the logic of Maroni's argument: bandwagoning on a growing anger towards politics without a real project may well be, in the long run, Grillo's demise. But this is besides the point. Project-less or not, the M5S did persuade the disenchanted fractions of both right and left electorates. Berlusconi's coalition lost over 7 million votes – 42% of its consensus in the last 2008 elections. And the League was no exception.

 On the face of it, falling by 4.2% in the Chamber of Deputies and 3.7% in the Senate, the League's drop may not appear as striking as Berlusconi's own party's – losing 15.8% and 15.9% respectively. But the League is, at its core, a regional party. And the picture gains more worrying undertones when the its performance is assessed on the regions which had always constituted the League's bulwark. Consensus rates dropped by 7% in Lombardy, 7.41% in Piedmont and 15.1% in Veneto. The appeal the League had enjoyed over the entrepreneurial classes was a thing of the past. In Veneto alone, its support amongst small artisans dropped to 18%, with the M5S overtaking the League at 22.5%. Grillo had spoken to the heart of those who had been pushed to the margins of the economy by former PM Mario Monti's austerity measures. And he had done so seemingly better than the League.

A troublesome affair – M5S and the League revisited 

 Interestingly, a drain in votes to the benefit of the M5S was a prospect which the League's senior officials had not taken into serious consideration. Interviewed last October on the potential threat the M5S could pose to the League, founder and spiritual father Umberto Bossi had ruled out his electorate could be attracted by Grillo's rhetoric. The M5S had “nothing to do” with the League. For the latter was founded as a party of liberation. And its aim was, is, and always will be, freeing the Padania region – the river Po valley, encompassing in the League's mythology the North at large – from a corrupted South. No, Grillo was “just too different”. He was no real threat to be concerned with.

 In the aftermath of February's political conundrum, the League's affair with the M5S changed dramatically. No longer, in Maroni's own terms, a “fascist” from whose “aggression” the League would protect Italy's democracy, Grillo was to be treated with more tact. True, the M5S and the League differ on a number of key themes. The idea of a federal Italian State, the League's raison d'être, figures nowhere in Grillo's manifesto. But the M5S does, to the hearts of many, evoke the League's glorious past of struggles against Rome's corruption, when Leghisti – the League's affiliates – had promised voters to chase traditional parties out of Parliament. It is nostalgia, more than anything else. But it is a growing feeling. One which may well be set to revamp the League's own anti-politics – at a point when doing so would seem an impossible task.

An anti-politics of the North

The League had found its breeding ground in the growing disenchantment towards the political caste which had culminated in the 1992 scandal Tangentopoli – “bribesville”. With the corruption and malaise of the entire ruling elite exposed to public ignominy, the League posited itself as the safeguard of the interests and welfare of Italy's North. Anti-politics entered a quintessentially regional dimension. Rome was the cancerous core of a system that was designed to extrapolate wealth from the North and redistribute it across its web of beneficiaries and middle-men. The North was the country's engine and the North had to be protected. By combining the narrative of Rome-the-thief with a capillary presence upon the territory, the League's anti-politics turned into a form of regional populism, where mythological discourses formed a cardinal part of the League's political programme. And so its devotees would dress up in medieval clothing and gather, once a year, to celebrate Padania's sacrality at the river Po's springs, where leader Bossi would fill a phial with the river's water to be emptied in Venice's lagoon, in accordance to a rite very much designed to ideally unite a panoply of regions under the same political colour.

 If anti-politics was fundamentally tied to the dream of a freed North, the League's utopia had to be sustained by a strong political ally. Hence the entanglement with Berlusconi's party, the League's ally, persisting divergences notwithstanding, since 1994. Regional populism gradually turned into regional conservatism: the League was co-opted into the political establishment to form an axis of the North with Berlusconi's right-wing bloc, where the latter promised to give voice to the League's needs in exchange with support to the coalition. While Grillo's anti-politics is antithetical to co-optation within the system, the League's projects could only be realised within it. But the vocabulary, and indeed the very programme, the League had coined since its foundation gradually changed. No longer tied to the dream of a secession from the suffocating embrace of Rome's bureaucracy which Bossi had predicated in 1996, the League rethought its cardinal principles and set for a fiscal federalism and for a devolution of power within Italy's borders.

The brief parenthesis as the opposition force against Monti's technocracy, sponsored by both centre-left and centre-right, marked the last instance of a Berlusconi-free League. But the prospects of re-fashioning itself as a valid alternative to an establishment that was seemingly more preoccupied with pleasing financial markets and European neighbours than taking care of its people were short-lived. In April 2012, League's treasurer Maurizio Belsito was accused of stealing money from the party to the benefit of Bossi's family. Bossi's personalistic rule was shattered, Maroni  emerged as the new party's secretary as the League sought to re-position itself within a post-Monti Italy. Grillo, who had at first read the scandal's breakout as a plot conducted by the political caste to silence its opposition, gradually turned the initial empathy into fierce condemnation. The League was nothing but another party, another parasite, and as such would be dissolved by the M5S overwhelming pressure. Corruption, which had for years alimented the League's battles against the South, was now very much at the party's core. Weakened by the scandals, the League turned back to Berlusconi, losing credibility to the eyes of those who had believed in a party's new beginning, and who then turned to the M5S in the quest for another means to voice their protest.

The way forward – from a macro-region to a macro-failure?

Monti's technocracy did nothing to heal Italy's long-lasting disenchantment towards politics. If anything, it arguably set the ground for the blossoming of a new anti-politics season. While similar feelings had alimented the League's rise in the early 1990s, its ongoing entrenchment with the political establishment and the recent scandalous past would seem, pace the nostalgia of some aficionados, to have rendered anti-politics an impossible route to re-embark on. After all, if we are to listen to Maroni, the League's dissonance was always coupled with a political project. But what does this now entail?

The League's dream is still rooted on a regional dimension, but this is one that is now geographically reduced. The party went back to being Berlusconi's ally, on condition that the latter would allow for the creation of a League-governed macro-region encompassing Veneto, Piedmont and Lombardy, where 75% of tax revenues would be retained within the regions' borders. Regardless of whether it will ever take off, the programme marks a clear break with Bossi's dream of a free Padania. And indeed, Maroni has began to de-Bossi-tise the League. The sacred water rite ended in 2011. No more descents on the river Po. No more medieval clothing. Less symbolism, and more facts. From a Padania that was to be freed in its totality, the League has now significantly restricted its scope.

But concentrating explicitly on a macro-region encompassing Veneto, Piedmont and Lombardy alone is apt to seem problematic. Their importance notwithstanding, what will happen to the other regions of Italy's North? How will the League justify its operations to the devotees who do not fall within Maroni's geographical utopia? In all its folklore, dropping water from the river Po in Venice's waters had for Bossi a clear meaning. For it was set to ideologically unite Italy's North-East – untouched by the holy waters of the Po – with Padania's homeland. And this is a nuance with Maroni's pragmatism seems to have overlooked.

In the long run, the new secretary's pre-elections prophecy might turn out to be right. Anti-politics tout-court is a dangerous weapon. And Grillo cannot surf on the wave of Italy's discontent ad infinitum. But if the M5S is yet to build a sound programme to support its narrative, so is the League. The greatest lesson Grillo may teach Maroni's affiliates is that anti-politics is nobody's prerogative. In the early 1990s, the League had presented itself as the alternative to a scandal-ridden political caste. But its momentum is now gone. Maroni ought to take this time to fashion a new, all-encompassing political project, before the League becomes itself part of the mythologies it has endlessly produced, and which it is now trying to forget.


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