Bossi courts new federal allies: Italy's election-winning partners find they can neither live together nor apart

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The Independent Online
THE leader of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi, flew to Rome yesterday, having provoked his senior 'ally', Silvio Berlusconi, to break off talks on forming the next government after a particularly febrile outpouring of invective.

Mr Bossi hopes to interest minor parties in his federalist programme. Meetings are scheduled for today with the Democratic Alliance, a small left-wing party, and with the centrist Pact for Italy.

His antics are the price the right-wing alliance is paying for the Faustian electoral pact which the League struck with Mr Berlusconi in order to maximise its vote in its northern heartland. Now Mr Bossi is desperate to prove that his federal soul is still his own.

All this would be no more important or interesting than business as usual after Italian elections if it were not for two facts. First, Mr Berlusconi's alliance won a landslide victory under new electoral rules that were supposed to make scenes like this a thing of the past. Second, the problems emerging this week appear to bear out pre-election fears that the unlikely alliance cobbled together to win at the polls cannot translate into a stable administration. For, like the worst sort of relationship, the League and its right-wing allies cannot live together, but neither can they live apart.

The League's insistence on federalism, for example, is anathema to the neo-Fascist National Alliance. Personal antagonism is particularly sharp between Mr Bossi and the neo-Fascist leader, Gianfranco Fini, who is on record as saying that Mr Bossi's role in any new government would be to go out to buy the cigarettes.

'I don't want a government which Bossi brings down as soon as he sees something he doesn't like, such as the first time we put forward a law to help the South,' Mr Fini said yesterday. But Mr Berlusconi and his neo-Fascist allies cannot govern without the League; it holds some 120 of the right's 366 seats in the lower house. A pact with the centre or the left is made almost unthinkable by the presence of the neo-Fascists.

This is exactly what Mr Bossi is counting on. He is trying every political trick to avoid paying the price of his pact with the devil: absorption by his partners and the burying of the League's federalist identity. Only by taking a tough line with his senior ally can Bossi hold on to his own credibility with his electorate, says Guido Passalacqua, a writer and expert on the League. 'If Bossi loses this battle he, and his whole movement, will be destroyed,' he says.

The danger is that if Mr Bossi goes too far, he could find himself a general without an army. Mr Berlusconi has been making overtures to League MPs; many are said to be tempted to break ranks with a leader they fear may lose them the real chance to wield power in government. The public certainly see Mr Bossi as the chief culprit of the breakdown in talks on forming the new government.

The daily L'Indipendente, which used to support the League's attacks on Rome's corrupt politicians, yesterday published a page of readers' letters urging Mr Bossi to behave responsibly and help form a government.

Despite the rhetoric, the groundwork is already being laid for a compromise allowing the formation of a right-wing government some time after parliament is reconvened tomorrow week. Roberto Maroni, Mr Bossi's number two, has called for a conference to resolve issues such as federalism and the premiership, and Mr Fini has hinted that his party could accept some devolution of power allied to a stronger role for the president.

Mr Maroni said yesterday that there was no alternative to the right. 'Either the League goes into government with the others in the Freedom Alliance or it is back to the polls, because the League will not govern with the left.' And no one, least of all a Northern League held responsible for the present mess, wants that.