Saturday, December 18, 2010

Italy's Northern League to the Rescue: Bye bye Berlusconi!

Silvio isn't a sex addict, he's a Bill Clinton-wannabe

Berlusconi barely survived a 314-311 vote of confidence last week. But when and if his battered political career comes to a halt, the elections afterwards might vault The Northern League's political boss, Signor Roberto Bossi, into the top seat in Italy. Roberto Bossi is responsible for touting the Po Valley's advantages versus the problems in the rest of the country with the great quip "Garibaldi didn't unite Italy---he divided Africa!"

Here's a recent Economist article:
For almost ten years, starting in the late 1990s, the League and its dream of a free “Padania” (northern Italy) could be dismissed as outlandish. No longer. Since 2008, Silvio Berlusconi’s government has relied on the League’s votes in parliament. To ensure its continued support the prime minister promised this month to accelerate the implementation of “fiscal federalism”—the League’s ill-defined project for greater financial autonomy.

If, however, the government is brought down next year by divisions among its non-League elements, Mr Bossi and his followers should be the main beneficiaries of any resulting election. Polls show them increasing their share of the vote by half since the 2008 election.

As with many parties across Europe, the League’s anti-illegal immigration and anti-Islamic stance is popular. It is a Leaguer, the interior minister, Roberto Maroni, who has implemented Italy’s controversial policy of turning back migrants in the Mediterranean before they can apply for asylum. Islamophobia is rife in the League. Another minister, Roberto Calderoli, once walked a pig over land earmarked for the building of a mosque.

Yet the party’s xenophobia is in essence a by-product of Mr Bossi’s efforts to create a shared identity among the people he seeks to unite. “One way he does this is by setting up common enemies,” says Alessandro Trocino, co-author of a recent book on the League. “First, it was Italians from the south; then immigrants in general, now Muslims in particular.”

Mr Bossi’s message has proved increasingly attractive to traditionally left-wing voters. Indeed, their support was crucial to the League’s impressive showing in the 2008 election. “We are neither left nor right,” says Ettore Albertoni, a former speaker of the assembly of Lombardy, the region around Milan. The claim has some foundation; many of the League’s longstanding voters are both employers and workers—owners of farms, workshops and bars.

It would be ironic if next year, the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification, became the League’s annus mirabilis. But Giuseppe Berta, the author of a book on Italy’s north, says, “The League is on the crest of a wave. That means it’s about to fall back.” The party, he maintains, has innate handicaps. It remains dependent on Mr Bossi’s charisma (undimmed by a stroke in 2004 that left him with impaired speech). Urban voters are put off by its populism, vulgarity (Mr Bossi recently described Romans as “pigs”) and mythologising (of an ur-Padanian Celtic heritage). Professor Berta says the League has yet to produce leaders capable of governing anything bigger than a town. Not everyone agrees. Mr Maroni is among the government’s most popular ministers. Luca Zaia, who left the cabinet in April, is seen as an effective governor of the Veneto.

Much depends on whether the League will achieve its fiscal federalism, and, if it does, how it uses its new powers. Mr Trocino believes that it suits Mr Bossi and his followers to have an eternally unfulfilled demand. “Remember Oscar Wilde’s quip,” he says: “‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers’.”

The Northern League seems to vaguely resemble the Poujadists of mid-century France, a conservative movement of small business and property owners. The Italians constantly repeated to me during my numerous trips to Italy that "Africa begins fifty miles south of Rome," meaning the divide between the two cultures of italy. From a classical point of view, the two Italys might be the Magna Graecia of south Italy, where the gestures are Greek-derived, and the more familiar Latin gestures.

The pledge by Roberto Bossi to return to the Celtic pre-Roman past reminds one of the Cis-Alpine Celtic tribes that sacked Rome in 390BC before they were eventually conquered two centuries later by the Roman legions. The Celts never cease reminding the anecdotal legends of the Italic tribes conquered by Rome that the original seven hills were a refuge for bandits, criminals, and highwaymen just across the Tiber, the southern border of Etruria, the Etruscan limits of governance. These tribes collected slaves and militarized them early on until a combination of volcanoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters weakened the Etruscans enough so that the highway robber enclave of Rome defeated the Etruscans around 420BC and then utterly laid waste to their capital, foreshadowing the fate of Carthage three centuries later.

Bossi's idea of "Padania" comprising the Po Valley's scenic riches might just propel the wealthy north into control of the rest of the country, much as northern Paris controls the rest of the French paysage.

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