Extreme party of chauvinism holds the key

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The Independent Online

The perma-tanned Silvio may be stealing the headlines but Italy's election has been a triumph for former bricklayer and guitar teacher Umberto Bossi and his tempestuous Northern League.

The league, which is allied to Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, looks likely to double its showing in the next parliament to more than 40 seats, becoming the single most important influence on the new government.

A grouping of chauvinistic regional parties in Lombardy and Veneto, the league is held together by their hostility to the "parasitic" south and especially Rome, which it calls "the big thief". It claims the capital taxes the hard-working and frugal north to death, yet provides nothing in return. At their most extreme, Northern Leaguers advocate secession from the Italian state, evoking a mythical golden age when the supposedly Celtic nation of "Padania" prospered, unbothered by the corrupt and idle Latins of the south.

Mr Berlusconi went into alliance with the league in his first government in 1994, which sank after a bare eight months when Mr Bossi pulled out. But the two patched it up eventually and campaigned together again in 2001. The league is regarded outside its heartland as a party of wild men that puts the unity of Italy at risk. Its leaders compete in extreme gestures and statements. Mr Bossi has called on the Italian Navy to fire live rounds at boats bringing illegal immigrants to Italian shores, and his deputy Roberto Calderoli went on television wearing a T-shirt bearing one of the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohamed that caused outrage. The league has been written off numerous times, and its charismatic leader Mr Bossi, 66, suffered a massive stroke four years ago from which he has only recovered slowly. But the arrival of large numbers of immigrants from Romania and elsewhere has nourished the chauvinistic sentiments on which the party thrives, and given it a massive new injection of public support.