A year ago, northern Italian separatist leader Umberto Bossi sent a delegation of three senators to observe Quebec’s referendum on separation. The three members of the Northern League came away saying they were inspired by Quebec’s “triumphal march towards freedom” using “perfectly legal means.” Never mind that the sovereigntists lost that vote. “For us it was a victory anyway, a lesson in good democracy that would be impossible in Italy,” said Giancarlo Pagliarini, self-styled prime minister of the newly declared northern Republic of Padania. “History will continue to move towards the creation of new states.” When Bossi last month declared Padania’s “independence” in Venice, critics accused him of plagiarizing word-for-
word declarations made by Quebec sovereigntists.
Some Quebecers, though, might wish they had the problems of Italy’s wealthy industrial heartland. Many northern Italians complain that they must subsidize the poorer south with hard-earned tax dollars while getting little in return. “Rome has never respected us,” says Romeo Marconi, owner of a small textile factory outside Verona that employs 17 people. “There are too many taxes and too many regulations. Small-businessmen are going bankrupt or taking early retirement.”
Bossi’s much-hyped three-day “March to the Sea” in September attracted about 130,000 people, far short of the “millions” he had predicted, and hardly more than a pro-unity counter-demonstration in Milan, the north’s business capital. And yet, the brash Bossi, 55, has prompted a soul-searching domestic debate. Wrote political pundit llvo Diamanti in the business daily Sole 24-Ore: “Everyone is talking about Padania, a nation that does not exist.” Bossi’s success has also forced Prime Minister Romano Prodi to pledge
greater fiscal federalism in his 1997 budget. And a joint commission of the lower and upper houses of parliament began this month to study constitutional reform.
Although Bossi’s Northern League has been around since 1984, its recent rise has been spurred in part by plans for a single European currency. Claudio Rinaldi, editor of L'Espresso magazine, believes Bossi’s future will depend on how well the Prodi government imposes an austerity program on the south in order to meet the low-deficit requirements of monetary union. “If Italy is cut out of the process of constructing a European currency, Bossi will acquire a terrifying force in the north,” says Rinaldi.
In last April’s national election, the League gained 30 per cent of the northern vote—4 million people. While that was be-
fore the League shifted from a moderate stance to secessionism, every new corruption scandal in the capital lends more lustre to Bossi’s rants against the “robbers of Rome.” During last spring’s campaign, Bossi painted himself as a Lombardy “Braveheart,” comparing his quest to that of Scotland’s William Wallace against the English as portrayed in the Oscar-winning film. The Italian press took to calling the separatist leader “MacBossi” and cartoonists sketched him wearing a kilt.
Despite the jokes, some analysts worry about a fanatic and potentially violent fringe within the party. Magistrates are investigating Bossi’s “greenshirt” bodyguards, who appear to be modelled on the blackshirts of fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A former justice minister says authorities suspect the group of stockpiling weapons in remote villages and forming an armed militia to fight for independence. Bossi may be down in the polls, but his supporters could still cause considerable havoc in the lands fed by the River Po.
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