Bossi's dream of independent Padania recedes as party congress is postponed

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Italy's northern League, which theatrically declared the northern half of Italy "independent" in 1996, is in suspended animation this weekend, after the indefinite postponement of its annual congress.

Italy's northern League, which theatrically declared the northern half of Italy "independent" in 1996, is in suspended animation this weekend, after the indefinite postponement of its annual congress.

On the first Sunday in June, tens of thousands of League supporters flock to the plain of Pontida, east of Milan, site of a famous 12th-century north Italian victory over Barbarossa, where they wave flags, eat and drink the specialities of "Padania", their name for northern Italy, and delight in the salty rhetoric of their leader, Umberto Bossi.

But Mr Bossi, the volcanic, coarse-grained demagogue who founded the party, fell gravely ill near the end of March, soon after the Senate in Rome gave the first of four required approvals to the league's federalist reforms. This week, Mr Bossi broke an 82-day public silence to tell his supporters to postpone the Pontida congress.

Mr Bossi had disappeared from view after reportedly suffering a heart attack, pulmonary edema and a stroke. For weeks he was in a coma, and his wife Emanuela allowed no news of his condition to reach the outside world. Then on Tuesday Mr Bossi spoke on the party's radio station, Radio Padania, to tell the faithful the congress should be postponed.

The broadcast, two minutes and 100 words long, was the first proof that he is still alive and in possession of his faculties. Recorded at his hospital bed in an undisclosed location, the croaking, wasted voice spoke more eloquently than his words of how ill he really was. The first words amounted to a tragic joke. "I'm fairly well," Mr Bossi said, "in the sense that I'm not dead." He went on: "It would be better if I didn't have all this stuff [his illness] and the pain that goes with it." Then straight down to business: "For me, it would be better to postpone Pontida. I would like to be there; it's my festival."

Gianfranco Salmoiragli, a senior administrator at the league's head office on the outskirts of Milan, said: "I was shocked by his voice. It was the voice of one who is still suffering." But Mr Salmoiragli, and with him the hundreds of thousands of league supporters in the prosperous north and north- east, took heart that at least Mr Bossi, minister for reforms in Silvio Berlusconi's government, was making sense. "He's still got his brains," Mr Salmoiragli said. "That's the important thing. His body will recover. And what he said showed that he is still with us, with all his faculties. That was a relief."

But it leaves open the question of where the Northern League goes next. Symbolic of the dilemma is the postponement or possible cancellation of the gathering at Pontida, the annual gathering of the northern tribes, at the spot where in 1167, acting, it is said upon the instigation of Nicholas Breakspeare, who as Hadrian IV was the first and only English pope, the northern Italian cities pledged to act together to resist Frederick Barbarossa.

This weekend, the plain of Pontida will be deserted, and the future of the most abrasive and, to many, most alarming, new force in Italian politics hangs in the balance. Umberto Bossi was born in 1941, and got his passion for the idea of political autonomy for northern Italy while working his way through medical school. He dropped out and supported himself by working as a maths tutor, bricklayer and guitarist while nurturing his microscopic political organisation, backing what at the time seemed an exotic proposal.

From the start, Mr Bossi was a magnetic speaker, whose threats and insults delighted his followers among the rich farmers and business people of Lombardy, while reminding others of the sort of verbal intimidation practiced by Mussolini.

In 1990 at Pontida, Mr Bossi oversaw the amalgamation of half a dozen small parties agitating for regional autonomy in the north into a single electoral force, evoking not only the resistance to Barbarossa but also a mythical, pre-Roman, Celtic past, denouncing the ravages of Italy's highly centralised state and demanding the devolution of power to the regions.

"We want federalism," Mr Salmoiragli said. "The league was the first party to speak about federalism in Italy. Now everyone's talking about it. We in the north live in a zone that industrially is one of the productive and dynamic in Europe, in the world, but we have the services not of the Third World but of the Fourth World, because everything is controlled from Rome. That's what we want to change, with federalism. Foreigners say we are a party of the extreme right. It's not true. We are above right and left, as Bossi says. And when we achieve federalism we will dissolve.''

After the political earthquakes of the early 1990s, Mr Bossi came roaring into Rome, "Big Thief Rome" as he called it, with dozens of MPs, and in 1994 got a first taste of power in coalition with Mr Berlusconi. Seven months later, Mr Bossi walked out, bringing the government down.

In the election of 2001, league support had shrunk to its lowest in 10 years, but in harness again with Mr Berlusconi, Mr Bossi forced federalism on to the government's agenda. But other things came with it. Last year, Mr Bossi said the Italian navy should fire on boats bringing in illegal immigrants. His candidates in next weekend's European election have turned overtly anti-immigrant, demanding, "no Islam", "stop immigration", in an attempt to shore up the party's support.

But without Mr Bossi, the Northern League seems hollowand insubstantial. As Mr Salmoiragli said: "Bossi is the party and the party is Bossi." That is the problem.