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Man in the news: Umberto Bossi

April 18, 2008

By Guy Dinmore

Published: April 18 2008

Italy is no stranger to rightwing populist leaders who flourish in difficult times, and this week’s parliamentary elections have laid bare the depth of the nation’s crisis in bringing back to power one of its most xenophobic and anti-establishment politicians.

Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire businessman, back in power at the age of 71, becomes prime minister for a third time but his newly named People of Freedom party maintains its majority only as long as Mr Bossi, 66, remains loyal to their coalition.

Their relationship has been tempestuous ever since Mr Bossi brought down their first coalition government in 1994, calling his former ally a “mafioso”, fascist and worse. Still, allies say it has matured over the years into a close friendship.

Nonetheless, fault lines in the centre-right coalition are already appearing, as evident in the quarrel this week over sharing out the “armchairs”, the ministerial spoils of victory. Describing the first post-election meeting of the victors in Rome as “useless”, Mr Bossi retired to his northern stronghold, declaring that he would negotiate only with Mr Berlusconi and not the others, a reference to the post-fascist National Alliance.

Known for his abrasive, aggressive and sometimes obscene outbursts, Mr Bossi is a charismatic, street-level populist from simple origins – the antithesis to the extremely wealthy, flamboyant, ever-smiling, flirtatious and wily media tycoon.

Yet both he and Mr Berlusconi owe their rise to power in the early 1990s by presenting themselves as the anti-politicians, capitalising on the tide of anger against the corrupt establishment that had arisen from a Catholic-Communist divide made irrelevant with the end of the cold war.

Mr Bossi’s distinction is that since forming the Northern League in 1991 out of several smaller regional groups he has remained firmly rooted in the industrial north, constructing his own set of political realities in the territory he calls Padania.

Born in Cassano Magnago in Lombardy, he was a medical school drop-out who drifted into bricklaying and maths tutoring and dabbled with communism before finding his path. His second wife, Manuela, mother of three of his four sons, is Sicilian, but they gave their two last children names that are politically charged in the north: Roberto Libertà (freedom) and Eridano Sirio (Eridano is an ancient name for the Po river).

Feeding on the image of the south and “thieving Rome” as a corrupt and lazy fiscal drain exploited by the Mafia, Mr Bossi’s demands have stayed constant – federalism and even secession of the north, more security and a crackdown on immigration.

“With no control on immigration, they ended up on reservations,” ran one of the League’s campaign posters in this election, picturing a Native American chief in feathered headdress.

The xenophobic, Catholic-centric but sometimes anti-clerical element of the League was en­capsulated when Roberto Calderoli, a former minister, wore a T-shirt with the infamous Danish cartoon caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed, and other League members walked a pig in Padua to desecrate land intended for a mosque.

In 1996, standing on the banks of the Po, Mr Bossi declared “independence” of the north. “We the people of Padania …” he began. In elections that year the League took 10.4 per cent of the national vote, its highest ever. But the centre-left won because Mr Bossi and Mr Berlusconi were still split. In 2001 they were back together again and swept into power for a second time, thanks to Giulio Tremonti, one of those closest to Mr Berlusconi, who fixed the rift.

To strengthen regional identity, Mr Bossi has manipulated intolerance to others, primarily to immigrants who are branded a social and cultural threat, and more widely to the perceived threats of globalisation. “Illegal immigrants should go back to their countries and stay there. Only those with a work contract and a residence permit can stay,” Mr Bossi was quoted as saying by the daily Corriere della Sera in 2002 after the passing of the Bossi-Fini law on immigration.

That law, co-authored with Gianfranco Fini, National Alliance leader, was denounced as racist by the left. Sympathetic commentators said Mr Bossi’s outbursts arose from a diluting of his hardline proposals and his anger at a sweeping amnesty given to illegals already in Italy.

Despite his frustration with Mr Berlusconi’s more pragmatic approach to immigration and limited steps towards federalism, Mr Bossi remained loyal to the second Berlusconi government, from 2001 to 2006. In that period, however, Mr Bossi was weak. His party had only a minimal presence in parliament.

In 2004 Mr Bossi suffered a serious stroke that left his speech impaired. He is still recovering. When the League performed poorly again in the 2006 elections, Mr Bossi was written off by many commentators as a relic whose time had passed. But that was to underestimate two fundamentals: the deepening economic plight of Italy’s workers who see foreign competition as a greater enemy than their own bosses; and the steady build-up of the League at local level, where it has more than 200 mayors.

Ilvo Diamanti, a political scientist, says Mr Bossi’s non-conformist language has become the norm of centre-right political discourse. At the same time more than 15 years of local administration has made the League more pragmatic. Gianluigi Paragone, former editor of Padania, the League’s newspaper, describes Mr Bossi as having a “very tough character, very severe, very closed”. But he adds: “Now since his stroke, he has mellowed.”

Just how Mr Bossi and his party have evolved could have a crucial bearing on whether Italy, with its 62nd postwar administration, can move towards a more “normal” system of stable government. These are early days and both sides are still coming to terms with the unexpected rout of the far left. However, with the new centre-left Democratic party under Walter Veltroni failing to establish a clear identity and the Communists forced to regroup outside par­liament, commentators have start­ed asking whether an abrupt shift to the right will send Italy back to the bitter divisions and even terrorist violence of the 1970s.

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