When Umberto Bossi first emerged into the hectic scene of Italian politics in the early 1980s, few people paid attention.
But today as Mr. Bossi, head of the Northern League, prepares to proclaim the "sovereignty and independence" of the Padania, an ill-defined region north of the Po River, he faces a captive audience. With the national media bending over backward to catch his every word, and political pundits agonizing over his talk of secession, the Northern League's leader can say he's come a long way. And this time, he insists, he means business.
"On Sept. 15, we will declare the sovereignty and the independence of the Federal Republic of Padania thus freeing the proud Northern people from the yoke of Rome," Bossi announced in June, not long after his party lost control of three major northern towns in local elections. Untroubled by the set-back, he unveiled a plan to hold a three-day march along the Po River culminating in a declaration of independence of Italy's industrial heartland in Venice.
Since then, much has been made of what critics believe is a skilled bit of political maneuvering designed to acquire greater administrative and fiscal autonomy for the north through a federalist reform of government. His fiercest followers, a fraction of the approximately 4 million people who voted for the league in last April's national elections, say this is a badly needed "wake up call."
"Ours will be a non-violent, pacifist process. It will be a Ghandian approach," Bossi proclaimed in early August. But he also encouraged "the people of the North" to burn state-owned TV licenses and knock down transmission towers across the valley of the Padania.
Whatever the purpose and ultimate objective of the league's campaign, by the time its leader arrives in Venice on Sunday he will have succeeded in sparking a debate that calls into question the form of Italy's government.
More to the point, he will have put before live TV crews thousands of truly exasperated northerners ready to engage in civil and fiscal disobedience.
Bossi's battle cry: secede
It would be not first time the league has shaken up the country. The league stunned the political establishment in 1992 by winning a 3-to-1 majority in the north and eventually taking over 16 northern cities, including Milan. In last April's national elections, the league averaged 10 percent of the national vote.
Bossi's battle cry has stayed the same through the years. "The north is burdened by insane taxation needed to support the collapsing economy of the mafia-infested south," he told a cheering crowd of supporters in June. "We must change this."
While the league's impressive showings make it a force to be reckoned with, its leaders can hardly claim to represent the majority of voters in the region it seeks to "liberate." Bossi's unwillingness to test his secessionist agenda by calling a referendum in the north suggests that popular support for his idea is small.
"It's really quite simple," says Irene Pivetti, the former speaker of the House of Deputies who recently broke with the league over the issue of secession. "Bossi doesn't want a referendum because he knows he'll lose it. Italians are passionate, not fanatics. The last time I spoke to Bossi in August, I asked him what was going through his head. He told me he was the incarnation of the 'spirit of the free north.' "
Everything north of Florence?
Facing a host of foreign reporters in Rome Tuesday, Roberto Maroni, Bossi's right-hand man, explained how the league would go about seceding from Italy. "After the proclamation of independence on the 15th, we will embark on a peaceful, groundbreaking, and irreversible process," he said. "In a few months, one year at the latest, Padania will become a new region of Europe."
Pressed to give a clearer political and geographic definition of the Padania, he talked of a "socioeconomic, rather than ethnic, identity" and suggested the southernmost boundary could stretch as far south as Florence.
So far, all of the league's attempts to gain credibility as legitimate representatives of a new political entity have failed. An inquiry lodged with the European Commission about the possibility of Padania independently adopting the European currency went unanswered.
The reaction at home hasn't been as aloof. Italian head of state Oscar Luigi Scalfaro recently warned that any attempt at secession would be met with armed force, and Mr. Bossi was even threatened with incarceration on charges of unconstitutional activities. The Roman Catholic Church also delivered several scalding condemnations.
Strolling through sunny Rome Tuesday, Mr. Maroni looked pleased by all the fuss. Asked how the league can achieve independence in only matter of months, he smiled. "I'm a poker player," he said, "and poker is all about bluffing."