Man Who Would Split Italy Says History Is on His Side
IS THE SOUTH 'PARASITIC'?
Umberto Bossi's moment of absolute certainty came 15 years ago, when he realized Italy would fall apart as a country.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"I saw with utmost clarity that the north would gain independence," he says. "I realized that we were moving at a much higher speed [economically] than the rest of the country, and I knew the discrepancy would become an abyss."
Sitting at the head of the only secessionist movement to threaten Italy since it was unified in 1861, Mr. Bossi has taken that flash of realization a long way.
Last April his party, the Northern League, won more than 10 percent of the national vote, coming in fourth after the former communists of the Democratic Party of the Left (21 percent), right-wing Forza Italia (20 percent), and the formerly fascist Alleanza Nazionale (14 percent).
Voicing the frustration of northern Italians who felt they were footing the bill for the south's sluggish economy, the Northern League received 20.5 percent of the vote in the north, with a peak of 42.2 percent in the Veneto region.
The divide between the north and south is older than the country itself. The north's geographical proximity to the rest of Europe favored its industrialization even before the Piedmontese, who were northerners, set out to unify Italy. As the north underwent radical changes, the south remained an agricultural society with a feudal organization of labor and property.
While there is real resentment in the north toward what Bossi is fond of calling "the parasitic south," recent polls indicate the possibility of secession is still remote, with only 7.6 percent of Italians in favor of splitting up the country.
Political observers say, however, that Bossi's secessionist ammunition paradoxically may come from Rome. The government's failure to bring about radical reforms, including federalist ones, may turn it into Bossi's unwitting accomplice.
There's no doubt that without Bossi's leadership the league's transformation from a rowdy regional movement into a major political force would not have been as rapid. "Bossi is a shrewd political animal and an exceptionally able populist," says Ernesto Galli della Loggia, professor of contemporary history at the University of Perugia. "In typically populist fashion, he has created the impression that the league is locked in a struggle between good and evil, that the entire movement is up against a massive conspiracy."
Often seen as raucous, ill-mannered, and sometimes offensive in his tirades against the central government - earlier this month he was ordered to stand trial for insulting head of state Oscar Luigi Scalfaro - Bossi's entrance into the political scene was, by contrast, a muted one.
He had planned to become a doctor, but a conversation one evening ended up radically changing his plans. "I had just come out of lab and noticed a leaflet pinned on one of the student boards," he recalls. "It talked about federalism, which back then was like speaking Arabic."