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Separatism the Italian way: the Northern League.

The 15th of September 1996 marked one of the strangest days of Italy's recent history. Umberto Bossi proclaimed the independence of the so-called Padania, the Latin name for the region around the river Po, to be established in under a year. At the end of a three day demonstration that began on 13 September from the mouth of the river Po, Bossi declared in the final gathering of Northern League supporters in Venice: 'From today in the North there are two legitimacies: one is that of the temporary government of Padania, the other is that of the Italian government'. Consequently Padania's flag, a green sun on a white field, replaced the Italian tricolour. This course of events ensured that the Italian and international media gave full coverage to this delicate situation, with journalistic inquiry directed at determining the level of support Bossi had for his separatist proposals. Participation in the demonstration was below Bossi's forecasts on the eve of the rally, but it was still a significant turnout. Most of the opinion leaders saw the League's initiative as a failure. In the Il Corriere della Sera Giulio Anselmi spoke of a 'Virtual Padania', an illusory project. Even the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, said that the events along the river Po were nothing more than a small rally, yet he emphasised the urgency of beginning political talks to discuss institutional reforms. However, beyond these three days that concentrated the attention of many observers of Italian politics, the question over the future of the League and its ability to push for institutional reforms to facilitate a federalist model or separatism still remain unanswered.

The second obvious problem is the attitude of the Italian government and of the opposition towards the League. Defining Bossi as a barbarian or a clown did not reduce his electoral support. Election after election in northern Italy enlarged the voter share of the separatist movement. The centre left, currently in power, and the centre-right opposition are facing a substantial loss in their electoral pull. What is surprising is that according to a poll carried out in northern Italy on 3 and 4 September by SWG and the magazine Famiglia Cristiana only 6 per cent of those interviewed would follow the League in a declaration of secession of the North from Italy. Generally a small amount of people from northern Italy would have as hostile an attitude towards Italy as Bossi has, while among the older generations the concept of separatism is a difficult one to take on board, even if they vote for the Bossi's movement.

Following the April 1996 general elections the League confirmed its strong position in northern Italy. Nationally it obtained 10 per cent of votes, one and a half points percentage more than in the 1994 elections, but it has to be considered that the League has its strongholds in the Northern regions. For example in Lombardia and Piedmont the League obtained more than 20 per cent of preferences, positioning itself as the second party after Berlusconi's Forza Italia and in Veneto it achieved an unexpected result of 30 per cent, installing itself as the first party in the region. Consequently the League elected 59 deputies and 27 senators, a political result even more significant than the one obtained by the Communist Refoundation and by several other smaller parties belonging to the two main coalitions.

The journey that brought the League to this electoral success began in the early 1980s and has its origins in the many regional formations that cropped up in that period. The roots of the Northern League grow in fact from the commitment of small movements to protect their regional cultural background, emphasising the necessity of preserving dialects and demanding greater autonomy from the centralised state in Rome. The first of these movements was the Liga Veneta (Venetian League), established in 1983 and able to elect in the same year's general elections one deputy with 125,311 preferences. At the 1987 general elections the Liga Veneta suffered a minor setback but as compensation the Lega Lombarda (Lombard League), entered into electoral competition achieving a 2.7 per cent share in the region. The appearance of these two regional movements in the North did not provoke apprehension in Italy. The political establishment, the media and the analysts of political developments considered the showing of the Liga Veneta and Lega Lombarda as a part of a more widespread phenomenon.

From the end of the 1980s, in fact, Italy experienced the proliferation of several minor political movements such as the Pensioner's Party and another supporting 'Hunting and Fishing'. The fragmentation of the political scene was due to the lack of governmental stability and the loss of public confidence for the traditional parties. Since the Christian Democrats found their power limited in imposing their leadership in the government coalition, the administration of the country became more and more difficult. Moreover people from the north voiced strong criticism against the inefficiency of the state apparatus and against the taxation system that, in their view, was not balanced between the north and south of the country.

This complaint became one of the main platforms of the leagues. Mainly they objected to the fact that, although northern Italy was paying the highest amount of tax in the country, the state's investments in the region were very poor. They criticised the state's economic policy in the south, which they viewed as too charitable. In particular the Lombard League, which was mainly supported by small businessmen and skilled workers, called for the reform of the fiscal system with the adoption of a federal fiscal model. Exploiting these similarities Bossi pushed successfully the other regional formations in the north towards the creation of a unitarian movement.

At the general elections in 1992 the Northern League presented single lists. The success was unexpected and triumphant. From an average of 0.5 per cent of the national vote obtained by the leagues at the 1987 elections, the Northern League enjoyed an increase of support to 8.7 per cent. It became the fourth largest party after the Christian Democrats, Socialists and the Party of the Democratic Left. The ability of Bossi and the malfunctioning central state set the conditions for the electoral success of the League, producing a new actor in the political scene that could not be ignored. Renato Mannheimer stated that, as a consequence of the 1992 general elections results, the index of instability, the highest ever recorded in Italy from 1953, was particularly striking.

The political turmoil was but one advantage for the League. The electoral support of the movement was in fact growing with the rising disaffection of people towards traditional parties. In the meantime this situation of high volatility and instability set the necessary prerequisite for the operation Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) that the Milan magistrates launched against political corruption in that period. The League with a demagogic and astute attitude decided to support the Milan magistrates and it made its verbal assault on the 'Roman robbers' tougher. Eventually Bossi was also put under investigation, accused of taking money from Montedison, but this event did not change the image the League gave of itself to the public of a movement committed to fight the corruption of the centralised state. Following the arrest of many politicians the traditional parties were destined to extinction. There was a period of confusion during which the Italian public lost its point of reference. During the 1993 administrative elections, in the final ballot for Mayor in Rome and Naples, the neo-fascist MSI (Italian Social Movement) candidates gained more than 40 per cent of preferences. Just one year before at the general elections the MSI obtained one of the poorest results in its history raising doubts about its future. This result can be explained by the electorate of the centre searching for a new representation. The League's leader understood that the feeling of uncertainty and distrust in the north could reinforce the foundations of the League's political support. At the same time, he was aware that the movement itself needed a better organisation and a more defined programme.

It was not possible to become an important party based only on a negative attitude towards the government, or against the south. Its federalist aspirations were still not clear. It is more probable that the success at the 1992 election and the possibility of playing a bigger role in Italian political life surprised even the League's leadership. The opportunity of exploiting the political vacuum caused by the collapse of the Christian Democrats and Socialists caught the League unawares. Finally in 1994 the debut of the television tycoon Berlusconi as leader of a newly created movement, Forza Italia, gave a new direction to Italian politics. In a few months Berlusconi promoted a centre right coalition Polo delle liberta mainly aimed at preventing a likely victory of the centre left at the March 1994 general elections. Also in this circumstance Bossi and the League were a decisive factor in the electoral success of the Polo delle liberta. Yet the coalition was characterised by a high degree of instability due to the incompatibility between the League and the National Alliance (NA). During the electoral campaign, in fact, Bossi strongly attacked the new political formation originating from the former neo-fascist MSI, and he excluded the possibility of sharing power with such a party. On the other side the National Alliance leader, Gianfranco Fini, made clear that he would oppose any federalist project.

Yet Berlusconi managed to create selective agreements with the two movements. In the north Forza Italia allied itself with the League and in the centre-south with the NA. The tycoon became a cornerstone linked with the two formations, but after the positive results of the general elections the League and the NA failed to find an agreement. Bossi justified his early decision to support the government coalition with the NA stating that he wanted to contribute to the stability of the country in a period of flux. The League's leaders received few key-position ministries. Roberto Maroni became Minister of Interior and Vito Gnutti Minister of Industry. However tension between the two formations grew irremediably worse. After seven months Bossi withdrew his support for the Polo delle liberta causing the collapse of Berlusconi's government. Once again the League was significant in changing the political scene. The decision to leave the government coalition probably was determined not so much by the contrast with the NA but by the electoral threat that Forza Italia represented for the League in the north.

At the 1994 general elections, although the League obtained a significant success, around 19 per cent of its 1992 voters deserted to Forza Italia. The appearance of Berlusconi's movement was a momentous one, and was attractive to the moderate voters of the League. The extreme attitude of Bossi was successful in the absence of direct competition, but from the moment Forza Italia positioned itself in the centre right of the political spectrum, a significant amount of voters found it more reassuring to support a movement with a moderate attitude. As a consequence of this situation, although on the surface the strongest clashes were between Fini and Bossi, the basic competition was between the League and Forza Italia in the north. Bossi preferred not to get too involved with the centre-right and supported the creation of a government of technocrats.

In the period following Berlusconi's collapse the centre left created a coalition with the support of parties belonging to a broad political spectrum, ranging from the catholic Popular Party to the Party of the Democratic Left and with the external support of the Marxist Communist Refoundation. The 'Olive Tree' Coalition established its roots and began to grow. Bossi refused to join such a coalition and did not even consider joining the centre-right again. From 1992 until the formation of Dini's government in January 1995, the Northern League was the counter-balance of Italian politics. Its attitude was determinant on several important occasions, but after the establishment of the centre-left coalition, it risked isolation if it did not accept a minor role in the 'Olive Tree'. The League decided to enter the April 1996 general elections on its own confronting two big coalitions, risking a contraction of support in an electoral system based on the first-past-the-post system. The League achieved more than political observers expected after it was attacked, from different angles, from all political forces, yet its power of influencing politics was significantly reduced.

From their establishment the leagues did not have any detailed political proposals. During the 1980s they modelled themselves as opposition movements against the incompetence of the state. They successfully criticised and argued with the bureaucracy in Rome, and as a result became successful in gaining electoral support. The Venetian League had the strongest xenophobic component against people from the south. It was, and its wing inside the Northern League still remains, particularly committed to protecting the ethnicity of the region.

Once the leagues joined together this attitude softened and the calls for more power for the regions became stronger but still incoherent. In fact until the 1994 general elections the League did not have clear proposals on how to realise a federation in Italy. After the League joined the Berlusconi government its claims had to be more focused; it could not be part of a government coalition without a defined programme. The period from the 1992 success at the general elections to the participation in the government coalition in 1994 was not a sufficient period of time for the League to develop a precise federalist project. This situation was evidence of two main factors: to start with the League's leadership often improvised its political line relying more on the dissatisfaction of the voters than a consistent political proposal. Secondly Italy does not have a federalist tradition (Federal in the European sense of power divided between the centre and the regions) not to mention a separatist one. So the entire creation of a federalist project had to be invented from scratch and this process started only after the March 1994 elections. In the following months the league studied and approved a programme for a federal constitution.

According to this proposal, Italy would become a federal union formed by three republics: the Northern Republic, Padania, the Etrurian Republic in the centre, and the Southern Republic. The Parliament would be transformed into a diet, the prime minister would be elected directly by the electorate and the central government would have responsibility for foreign policy, justice, defence and economy while the three republics would maintain a considerable autonomous economy. The aim expressed by the League was repugnant to the National Alliance, at the time in the same coalition. The creation of Dini's government started a period of transition during which some urgent laws had to be approved, after which Dini had to give up his mandate. In this period, before the last general elections, Bossi took the first of many sensational initiatives: he established in Mantua the Padania parliament, an assembly formed by deputies, local administrators and the leadership of the League. Such an initiative was a shock to the Italian public, but it was just the beginning. Bossi's extreme attitude made it more and more difficult for the centre left to establish electoral co-operation with the League. As a consequence the League's representatives were isolated in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies.

Yet the most sensational initiative of the Northern League arrived after the 1996 general elections. As a consequence of the electoral result, although its support grew in terms of preferences, the League returned a smaller number of deputies and senators. In Italy the new first-past-the-post system penalises the formations that decide to enter electoral competition on their own and therefore have to face strong coalitions. Due to the new order inside the parliament, the ability of Bossi to influence the political scene, as he did before, was lost. In this circumstance the League would have to accept a minor role in political life, but Bossi was adamant in refusing to submit to this. The next step the League's leader took was to shift the federalist aim to a separatist one. He stated that in the future Italy would split peacefully along Czechoslovakian lines. In the new project the so-called Repubblica Federale Padana would be formed by the Northern regions of Lombardia, Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta, Veneto, Friuli, Venezia Giulia, Trentino, Tirolo, Alto Adige, Liguria, Emilia, Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria and Marche. The initiative of the League's leader provoked strong reactions, not only among the other political forces, but also within the League. One deputy, Irene Pivetti, although an influential player in the League, was forced to leave the movement because of these differences. At the same time Bossi established the 'green shirts' and the Liberation Committee of Padania (LCP). With the three days of demonstrations in mid-September, involving the formation of a human chain along the river Po and a conclusive rally in Venice, a date was scheduled for the establishment of the temporary government of Padania. The seat of government was in Venice, whilst the green shirts and the LCP formed the Guardia Nazionale Padana. The next goal fixed by the League was that the complete independence of the north would be obtained no later than September 1997. In a short time the League's programme had become detailed and extreme. The League's quest of introducing a federal system in Italy was outdated by the new objectives of Bossi.

Several observers of Italian political life defined the League as a phenomenon generated by the deficiencies of the state and by the disaffection of voters towards the traditional parties. There is evidence that Mani Pulite and the consequent arrest of many politicians wiped out public confidence towards the administration of the country, in the north this disaffection coincided with support for the League. It is undeniable that the League's success is related to the events of the 1990s and the collapse of the first republic (there is still not a second republic in Italy). And probably the League's success in 1992 contributed to the 'legal revolution' of Milan's magistrates. The poor performance of the central state provoked a chain reaction in which the more the League attacked the government the more attractive it became, the more support the League acquired the better it could hit the state and the party system. It is easy to argue that a more efficient state would have eliminated the beginning of this 'chain reaction' and probably absorbed the malcontent on which the League laid the foundations of its political success. After the 1994 election the ability of Forza Italia, at that time a new and unknown movement, to attract a large amount of the League's voters was a test of the League's growth, in presenting a new and more efficient image of a political party. Berlusconi being a fresh actor on the political scene, was an attraction for moderate voters. However this opportunity was also missed. Berlusconi's government did not perform well, disappointing the expectations of a large part of his supporters. As a consequence of these events, it is now difficult for the political forces and for the government to absorb the dissatisfaction that enhanced the League's support.

Although Prodi's government is committed to giving stability to the country and to introducing some federalist reforms, it is difficult to undermine the League's position. In the last two years, and mainly after the recent general elections, Bossi understood that his movement's foundations could not rely exclusively on the dissatisfaction of the Italian voters. The League needed a stronger base for its federalist or, as lately we have learned, its separatist ideology. Bossi borrowed myths belonging to the separatist tradition of other countries such as the Scottish Nationalist Party. He compared himself to Ghandi in emphasising the non-violent attitude of his movement. However these figures were unrelated to an Italian separatist tradition. The cornerstone of the League's history was marked by the demonstration on the river Po. The three days of the League's gathering, regardless of the size of participation, are celebrated as the beginning of the journey towards the creation of Padania. The event was the beginning of a separatist tradition that very probably will be consolidated in the future. The deification of the river as the God Po, despite the ridicule it attracted, is part of the symbolism that the League needed to give points of reference to its supporters. These events, even more than the establishment of the Parliament in Mantua, the temporary government and the Guardia Nazionale Padana gave the League the symbols and myth that it needed to begin a separatist tradition in Italy. To deal with and eventually absorb a movement of protest is much easier than confronting a deeply-rooted tradition and the ideology attached to it. Furthermore, the composition of the electoral base of the League is significantly broadening. From a prevalence of elderly voters the movement is gaining significant support from young people. The new generations are those that can more easily subscribe to a separatist ideology.

In the future the League's influence on the government will force it to adopt a federal reform of the state, but as long as the League maintains its radical position in favour of separatism it will remain isolated within the parliament. Yet it will consolidate its electoral foundations in the North and in so doing will establish a separatist tradition that will be impossible to reverse.

Dr Paolo Tripodi is a visiting fellow of the Italian National Agency for New Technology, Energy and the Environment and adjunct lecturer at Nottingham-Trent University Department of International Studies.
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Author:Tripodi, Paolo
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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