Bossi links political ally with old regime: The leader of Italy's Northern League is seeing victory slip from his grasp, writes Patricia Clough in Gardone Val Trompia

'WATCH out]' The alarm, deep and hoarse, echoes among the silent houses of Gardone. The revolution that started here in the Alpine valleys and down on the Lombardy plain is in danger. 'Watch out . . . out . . . out]'

From a brightly lit platform at the far end of the square Umberto Bossi, pale and raucous, is fighting more desperately than ever, for the north, for his Northern League and for the revolution which is slipping from his grasp.

'The old regime is coming back]' he cries. 'It is not dead, it is only hidden]' 'The moment will come when they will all rise again en masse]'

On the face of it, Mr Bossi hardly needs to worry. He can still pull them in around here: hundreds drove from miles around to jam the streets with their cars and fill the grassy terraces around the platform. The League, thanks to its electoral pact with the right-wing tycoon-turned-politician, Silvio Berlusconi, still stands to win a substantial number of seats in parliament in the 27 March election.

The League flags still flutter above the crowd - but is it just imagination or are they swung less triumphantly than before? Is it just the chill night air, or are the cheers and the chants of 'Bossi, Bossi]' fewer, more subdued and more perfunctory than usual?

Mr Bossi knows, and his audience knows, that the triumphant wave which looked destined to sweep the League to power all over the north and maybe impose a federal system on the rest of Italy, is receding. Votes are leaching out unstoppably, not to the opposition but to his ally, that smooth-talking, plastic-packaged antithesis of his rough-and-ready self, Silvio Berlusconi.

Having breached the walls and led the demolition of the old regime, the League is now in danger of seeing others march in and take the share of the power it expected. 'We fought when it was hard, we went ahead when the going was difficult,' Mr Bossi bellows. It was the rise of the League, he recalls, that encouraged the magistrates to start the investigations that brought down the old political parties. 'A revolution has to be finished' insist League posters from the hoardings.

Mr Bossi is not bitter, he is highly aggressive. His voice is worn out by shouting. The foe is not the left - he ignores them - it is Silvio Berlusconi, alias the old political world in disguise. 'He is a rib from the old regime]' he cries. 'Behind him is Craxi]' - Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former prime minister, a close friend of Mr Berlusconi and regarded as an arch-villain of the old regime. 'If those people come back we will be in a worse morass than before]'

So why, one might ask, did he form an alliance with Mr Berlusconi and his Forza Italia? 'To stop them]' he bellows. Much of his address is devoted not to the future, but to the Past According to Bossi: the League's prowess, its triumphs, its cleverness, its cunning. Practically every political development in the past few years, it would seem, was a result of 'our' strategic brilliance.

Some of it is true, some looks more like history rewritten. But put it how he may, one thing is certain: the League is in a corner and Mr Berlusconi has put it there. Which is why Mr Bossi's vital message at this rally concerns the grey voting slip. Of the three ballot papers that voters will use a week on Sunday, two are for the direct election of candidates to three-quarters of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The third, which is grey, is for the proportional system which will decide the make-up of the remaining quarter.

On the first two, the League and Forza Italia are bracketed together as the Alliance for Liberty, and as a result of their pact 70 per cent of the candidates in the north are the League's and 30 per cent Forza Italia's. But on the grey slip they are competing against each other and it is this vote that will show which is the stronger party - and who calls the shots after the election, the League or Mr Berlusconi.

'It is vital that he does not win]' shouts Mr Bossi. 'It has got to be a roll of thunder for the League]'

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