THE rise of the Lombard League, a new right-wing movement, has stunned Italy's political establishment. The independence movement made spectacular headway at last month's elections, which catapulted it to the second-ranking party after the Christian Democrats in the northern Italian region of Lombardy and to the fourth rank nationally.
Political analysts here see the League's success and the decline of the Italian Communist Party as a shift to the right by the Italian electorate.
One of the League's campaign themes was its opposition to the central government of Rome.
``We are tired of supporting a government that only gives us disastrous public services. And we feel above all Lombard, not Italian,'' says Sen. Umberto Bossi, the League's leader and founder.
The former mathematics teacher adds that the League aims to change Italy's Constitution to grant autonomy for Lombardy, which has Milan as its capital and is Italy's richest and most-advanced region.
In principle, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi supports the League's demand for greater regional autonomy. ``They want to liberate Lombardy,'' he says. ``But if they don't get back to a democratic platform, we'll make sure that Lombardy is liberated from them.''
In fact, the League's politics trouble many analysts. The party's sudden popularity feeds on the same xenophobic and racist sentiments that boosted France's National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, says Joseph LaPalombara, professor of political science at Yale University. ``The racist dimension is hardly even camouflaged,'' he says.
The League is hostile toward Italians who left the poor southern regions en masse in the 1960s for opportunities in the industrialized north, say political analysts. And, they add, it is racist toward Italy's burgeoning masses of recent third-world immigrants.
Italian President Francesco Cossiga and other leading politicians have also sharply criticized the League for undermining national unity and contravening the basic principles that led to Italian unification in 1861.
League officials deny charges that they are racist and that they want to destroy the unity of Italy. But Bossi has pledged to launch a referendum to repeal Italy's new immigration law, which his group rejects as too liberal; the League says unemployed immigrants should be deported.
The League's support is strongest in the cities of Brescia and Bergamo. But its strength carried a number of similar local parties to power in other wealthy northern regions, such as Veneto, Piedmont, and Emilia Romagnia.
Bossi says he does not want to participate in local politics without autonomy from Rome. Still, he claims his party has only begun to tap a reservoir of support and predicts that in the next national elections, which are expected in 1991, support for his party will grow to around 8 percent of the electorate.
The prospects of a powerful right-wing party taking root in Italy worries Dr. LaPalombara. The leghe, as the League's local parties are collectively called, ``are not tainted by the association with Fascism that made the MSI an anachronism,'' he says, referring to the traditional neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, whose support is waning. In the Milan City Council elections, the MSI vote was nearly halved.
Leghe leaders inveigh against the transfer of the wealth from the north to the south for development projects and take a dim view of the entire southern political class.
The League's leap forward at the polls - to 5.6 percent of the Italian vote - was a measurement of Italians' distrust of the political establishment, which is seen widely to be catering to clientele interests. A poll conducted after the regional elections showed that many League supporters in fact considered themselves left of center.
Most parties see the leghe as something of a political pariah.
Republican Party Secretary Giorgio La Malfa says the success of the leghe is ``a harsh protest against the political parties and a sign of malaise that comes from the most developed part of the country, where the contrast between the efficiency of the private system and the inefficiency of the public system is perceived more strongly.''