Umberto Bossi resigned last week as the leader of the populist and xenophobic Lega Nord (the Northern League), Italy’s largest separatist party, based chiefly in the northeastern and north-central regions of Italy, especially in the Veneto and Lombardy.
Since before Silvio Berlusconi ascended to the top levels of Italian public life, first in 1994 with the Forza Italia party, later with the Casa della Libertà coalition of right-wing groups and finally the more formal Popolo della Libertà party, Bossi and the Lega Nord have been inexorable toads on the Italian right’s lilypad.
Berlusconi often needed Bossi in order to form a coalition to govern, but the anti-immigrant tenor of the Lega Nord — in 2008, it tried to prevent the building of any Islamic mosques in Italy — was always a bit of a distraction for the Berlusconi government. Indeed, in 1995, Bossi and the Lega Bord caused the first Berlusconi government to fall after losing a vote of confidence. In the late 1990s, the Lega called for the independence of northern Italy under the name of “Padania.” While Berlusconi’s forces have largely supported the austerity measures of new, technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, Bossi and the Lega have been remained in somewhat bitter opposition.
The party vacillated between a high of 10.1% in the 1996 election to a low of 3.9% in 2001, only to re-emerge with 8.3% and 60 seats in the most recent 2008 election that restored Berlusconi to power. It’s an even bet, though, that we’ll be saying “addio,” and not the more we’ll-meet-again breezy “arrivederci” to the Lega Nord, which may crumble with the fall of Bossi, whose resignation stems from the kind of sleazy corruption reminiscent of the Bettino Craxi era of Italian politics — abuse of the party’s coffers for improvements to his own property and kickbacks to family members.
Despite his protestations, it is difficult to understate just how intertwined Bossi and the Lega Nord have become: Bossi is the Lega Nord and has been for two decades.
If the Lega Nord does wither, Italy and the Italian right will likely be more respected for it — the remnants of Lega support might well find its way to Futuro e Libertà, which constitutes the remnants of the former Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), a one-time neo-fascist party pulled to the center-right by its leader, Gianfranco Fini, who served as deputy prime minister and foreign minister to Berlusconi from 2001 to 2006 and has served as speaker of the Chamber of Deputies since 2008. Although the main right-wing forces coalesced under the Popolo della Libertà banner to fight the 2008 elections (with the notable exception of Bossi’s Lega), tensions between Berlusconi and Fini led to the reemergence of the Finiani party, which is expected to contest the next Italian elections as a separate party from the Popolo della Libertà.
In the meanwhile, the Lega leadership will be held among a triumvirate of top Lega officials, the most notable of whom is the relatively moderate (compared to some of his Lega colleagues, at least) former interior minister from 2008 to 2011, Roberto Maroni.
Many commentators are proclaiming this the biggest political milestone since Berlusconi’s resignation as prime minister. It’s not — the biggest earthquake is the surprising ease with which Mario Monti has becalmed his European colleagues, his Italian counterparts and the global financial world, scrambling domestic Italian politics in the process.
Take a look at Italy’s 10-year bond rate — the graph is a testimony to Monti’s success.
Still, commentators are right that Bossi’s exit adds to the sense that Italian politics is undergoing a tectonic shift:
“It’s the end of a cycle. After the end of Berlusconi, now Bossi leaves, too,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “It’s really the end of the cycle of the Second Republic,” he added, referring to the Berlusconi years. (The First Republic refers to the postwar political order, which ended in the early 1990s, followed by the rise of Mr. Berlusconi, a media magnate turned politician.)
That well be true, even though the “Berlusconi era” of 1994 to 2011 always seemed to me to flow directly from the Craxi era –Craxi was a mentor to Berlusconi and it was under the Craxi regime that Berlusconi succeeded in getting relaxed regulatory treatment of his media empire. Furthermore, Craxi’s deputy prime minister, Giuliano Amato, has remained a senior statesman to Italy’s left, serving as interior minister as recently as the 2006-2008 government of Romano Prodi. Craxi, the Italian Socialist Party leader who governed Italy in the mid-1980s was discredited, alongside other Christian Democrat Party leaders after the Tangentopoli ‘bribesville’ scandal of the early 1990s — Craxi himself fled Italy to Tunisia, where he died in exile. The void on the Italian political scene allowed Berlusconi to emerge as a new kind of Italian leader.
With the exit of Berlusconi and with the continued success of the Monti government, there’s some real hope that a normalized Italian politics may emerge among a new generation of leaders on both the right (Fini, for example, as well as Sicilian Angelino Alfano, who emerged as Berlusconi’s final justice minister) and the left (Nichi Vendola, the openly gay and stridently leftist governor of the historically conservative Puglia region, for example, or Pier Luigi Bersani, the current leader of the center-left Democratic Party and former minister of economic development in the Prodi government).
Bossi’s resignation can only add to the sense that change is afoot.