The Northern League for the Independence of Padania (Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania) is the oldest (1) olitical party represented in the current Italian parliament. Its founder, leader and secretary is Umberto Bossi, an ex-left-wing activist who created the party in the early 90s, out of resentment towards and disillusionment with the government’s centralism and migration policies. The League was founded in 1991 as a federation of several Northern- and Central-Italy regional parties. Following the 1992 elections, the League had become the 4th largest political force, and in 1994 it joined the government’s right-wing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi.
In the 1996 elections the League ran alone and raised more than 10% of the votes, becoming the largest political force in many provinces of the wealthy North. It then began to forcefully demand the independence of Northern Italy under the name of Padania. The League also started a campaign against Berlusconi, accusing him of ties to the Mafia; this earned them increasing popularity everywhere, even in historically left-leaning areas.
However, in 1999 the League rejoined its former allies, still led by Berlusconi, and together the coalition won the 2001 general elections. The demand for the independence of Padania was put aside (but not entirely dismissed), and its political claims took the form of “devolution”: the transformation of Italy into a federal state through fiscal federalism, in order to let the Northern regions keep more tax revenues. An important, federalist, constitutional reform was approved by Parliament, but later rejected by voters with a referendum in 2006. In 2009, during Berlusconi’s 4th term as Prime Minister, the Parliament approved another bill introducing federal fiscalism, this time with bipartisan support. At present, and taking advantage of the current political and economic crisis, the League has renewed its demand for the independence of Padania and has criticised Berlusconi’s political weakness.
The Northern League’s Recipe for Success: Ethno-populism, xenophobia and idiocy
The Northern League has been denounced by many – including the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (2) – or its particularly widespread use of racist and xenophobic propaganda. Its ideology has often been compared to several European populist parties, such as the French National Front. However, there are some important differences in this particular case of regional ethno-populism. French anthropologist Lynda Dematteo has conducted field research on the Northern League for several years and has described its peculiarities in her essay “L’idiotie en politique” (“Idiocy in Politics”). Her theory is that the League’s propaganda is based on a particular folkloric character, often presented in carnival parades: the “idiota”, or the Fool. This figure is represented as a “fake fool”, whose social function is to speak the unspeakable by means of derision and self-mockery.
The “village idiot” style is the style chosen by Bossi and several others Northern League’s representatives, in order to speak the otherwise socially-unacceptable “truth”. The Idiot has the power to desecrate, mock the powerful and express his “true membership”. Seen from this perspective, the Northern League leaders’ gaffes are nothing but acts of “Fools”, which express the feelings of ordinary people. The League, therefore, uses the “old trick of right-wing populism”, by transforming the economic contrast between classes into a cultural conflict. Consequently, presumption of knowledge becomes more intolerable than inequality, and popular hostility is directed against the political and cultural elite, rather than the economic elite. On the other hand, the working class’ anger is deviated towards scapegoats outside the local community, such as Southern people and immigrants.
The atmosphere of the League’s events are very different from other parties: everything is informal, everyone is friendly, just like in any small town bar in Northern Italy. Newcomers are easily sucked into a sort of “regressive shell”, cemented by feelings of external hostility.
Opportunism and ambiguity: madness and seriousness
The Northern League distinguishes its own leaders between “crazy” and “fit-to-be-seen” – with the exception of Bossi, whose mixture of “craziness and respectability” is made acceptable by his position. The “crazy” ones, like European MP Mario Borghezio, have blatant fascist and extremist ideas. They are often the subject of mockery within the party, but serve the purpose of feeding and expressing feelings and ideologies “secretly” shared by everybody in the party. Meanwhile, the “serious” ones, like Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, occupy important positions and carry out right-wing policies masked under a gloss of respectability (see: migration policies). Consequently, most left-wing protests focus on the misconduct and provocations of the League’s “daft” members, while “the serious” members are left to act mostly undisturbed. Sometimes the mechanism is reversed: some “crazy” individual, considered harmless, is left to do whatever he wants, with the result that blatantly fascist policies are passed.
1 – This is due to the entwining of the end of the so-called First Republic (which led to the disappearance of the five most important Italian parties, the Pentapartito ) of and the Fall of Berlin Wall (end of the Italian Communist Party). Notwithstanding the fact that they are the oldest political force in the Parliament, and an important place in the government, they keep pretending to be brand new.
There are numbers of new political parties in Italy nowadays, very linked with the old ones, even if they was formally all born in the Second Republic (for instance, there are lots of members from the Pentapartito’s heritage in the Berlusconi’s party and coalitions, sometimes also former-communist such as Sandro Bondi). More informations available in English here.
This could be one explaination of the Northern League’s pride of being a “new force”, which provide original answers to the present-day challenges.
2 – See, for instance, these two statements: « Exponents of the Lega Nord (Northern League) have been particularly active in resorting to racist and xenophobic propaganda, although members of other parties have laso made use of xenophobic or otherwise intolerant political discourse. […] ECRI fears that – in an attempt to obtain supporto from wide segments of the population supposed to be hostile to foreigners – politicians may tend to increasingly move away from a concept of society based on principles of justice and solidarity for all. » \[from the Second report on Italy (2002) (.pdf), p. 24.\]; and: « In its second report, ECRI expressed concern at the widespread use made of racist and xenophic discourse by exponents of certain political parties in Italy. […] ECRI notes with regret that since then, some members of the Northern League have instensified the use of racis and xenophobic discourse. » \[from the Third Report on Italy (2006) (.pdf), p. 25.\]