Global Policy Forum

A New Power Broker Rises in Italy

Italy's Northern League (Lega Nord) is pressuring Prime Minister Berlusconi into granting "fiscal federalism" in the North of Italy. Fiscal federalism would allow a greater proportion of tax revenue to remain in the prosperous North, circumventing what the League describes as the South's "corruption and historic misuse of state resources."  Berlusconi, who is well-aware of the political power of the ever-more popular Northern League, must decide between sating the regionalized interests of what is at heart an anti-immigration party and losing support by continuing with the nationwide fiscal system.


By Rachel Donadio

New York Times

September 10, 2010


The Northern League gathered here [Venice] this past weekend under a blazing sun to celebrate a peculiar late summer ritual. Stalwarts, dressed in emerald green and some wearing T-shirts with anti-immigrant slogans ("+Rum, -Rom," or Gypsies), poured a vial of water drawn from northern Italy's Po River into the Venetian lagoon.


Veneration of the river is central to the group's murky origin myth, which centers on a vaguely Celtic-inspired separate nation called Padania. But this deeply populist group is not a folkloristic fringe. It is, at the age of 21, the fastest-growing and most powerful political party in Italy, having tapped directly into local Italian and broader European fears about the economy, immigration and loss of local identity.


It makes the Tea Party in the United States look quaint - and today, the very political survival of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lies in its hands.


Mr. Berlusconi's political clout is perilously low. Hostility inside his coalition has exploded into open warfare, and he is trying to stave off a government collapse and early elections at a time when $56 billion in government bonds are set to come due and world markets are attentive. Mr. Berlusconi's great wealth and control of the media and government count ever less.


"Today is Berlusconi's weakest moment yet," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a political science professor at the University of Florence.


All of which has empowered one man in particular: Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, who is known for extra salty language, wearing tank tops and continuing to smoke cigars even though a stroke took away a good part of his voice.


The current political crisis is so complex as to confound even veteran political analysts, to say nothing of average Italians. But what is clear is that Mr. Berlusconi is struggling mightily to hold his coalition together. The restive co-founder of his center-right People of Liberties party, Gianfranco Fini, a former neo-fascist who is finding more support these days in the center, left the party in late July, arguing that Mr. Berlusconi was in danger of becoming a dictator.


The split also strengthened the Northern League's point man in the government, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, who is seen as a contender to one day succeed Mr. Berlusconi.


As the crisis expands, no one is forgetting that the Northern League, though a partner in every Berlusconi government, has not always been loyal. In 1994, Mr. Berlusconi's first government collapsed after the party pulled out, and without its backing he lost the 1996 elections. With its support, he won again in 2001 and 2008.


While Mr. Fini's deputies are in play, as is a centrist party heavily courted by both right and left, Northern League leaders say this time around they will back Mr. Berlusconi - but, at least for now, they want elections next spring, two years before the government's mandate is set to end.


"As a member of the league, I should say that I want to vote tomorrow," said Giancarlo Giorgetti, the chairman of the Lower House budget committee and one of Mr. Bossi's most powerful deputies.


"But in a moment of international financial tension like this, first we have to pass the budget because we can't start in 2011 without the tools to govern."


In exchange for its support, the party wants Mr. Berlusconi to pass its platform of "fiscal federalism," allowing more tax revenue to stay local in the prosperous North.


What hangs in the balance is the Italian South, which has traditionally backed Mr. Berlusconi, but which the Northern League mercilessly criticizes for its corruption and historic misuse of state resources.


Many say fiscal federalism will further divide the country between the prosperous North and poorer South.


Others disagree. "Thirty years ago the country was just as divided," said Alessandro Trocino, a co-author of "Razza Padana," a history of the Northern League. Fiscal federalism, he added, is "a propagandistic trick."


Mr. Giorgetti said fiscal federalism would help the South because "it would help people who are used to swimming with a life jacket to swim without one."


But it may be Mr. Berlusconi who needs the life jacket. To survive, he has to perform a difficult balancing act. "He needs the support of the Northern League, but he cannot forsake the support of the South," Mr. D'Alimonte said. "He has to put together the devil and the holy water."


The Northern League's rise stems as much from its platform - fewer illegal immigrants and fiscal federalism - as from the failure of other parties, not least the center-left Democratic Party, to directly confront Italian fears or present a coherent program to help Italy stay competitive.


While critics say the Northern League has delivered more rhetoric than results, it now commands respectable margins. In last spring's regional elections, it took 30 percent of the vote in the Veneto and 26 percent in Lombardy, two of the country's most powerful regions. For the first time, it also pulled in double digits in historically left-wing Emilia Romagna, where it is increasingly popular among formerly Communist blue-collar workers. It has also gained ground in largely leftist Tuscany.


With the slogan "Not left or right but forward," the Northern League has attracted voters from across the political spectrum. It is openly hostile to illegal immigration, an increasingly loud theme both in Italy and Europe. One Northern League deputy provocatively threw a pig's head on the ground where a mosque was planned, defiling the lot. Popular among agricultural workers, it is fiercely opposed to genetically modified crops and European legislation that it fears would inhibit local food traditions.


The emphasis on local culture was strong in Venice at Sunday's event, called the "Festival of the Padanian Peoples," Padania being an imaginary Northern Italian homeland dreamed up by the party's founders.


"The party attracts people because it represents our values, our culture, our traditions," said Oretta Piertotti, a member of the city council of Pavia, outside Milan. "I have no sympathy for this idea of a united Europe," she added.


"We don't believe in integration, we are afraid of an invasion," said Gianluca Ghizzardi, 43, a nurse from Sarezzo, outside Brescia, who had dyed his beard green and was wearing a Viking hat and carrying a plastic Celtic sword.


Asked how the Northern League could square its rhetoric on immigration with the fact that businesses in the North - and indeed, the entire country - relied on immigrant labor to survive, Mr. Giorgetti smiled knowingly. "In fact," he said in an earlier interview, "business owners don't vote for the League, it's the workers who vote for the Northern League."


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