Honest rule brings cheer to Italian town: The Northern League is transforming local government, and the people have taken to it, Patricia Clough writes from Varese

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST shoots of post-revolutionary Italy are sprouting. Varese is the first sizeable Italian town to have a mayor and most of its administration from the Northern League - and it has not seceded, nor thrown out its southerners, and the mountains round about are still standing.

After 130 days under new management, the 85,000-odd inhabitants, shocked by corruption scandals that put more than 70 local politicians behind bars, are pleased with their unusual mayor, Raimondo Fassa, and his team. And he relishes the job.

Many eyes are on Varese. Once a gracious resort, now a pleasant industrial centre in the Italian lakes, it is the home town of Umberto Bossi, the League's leader. It had the movement's first headquarters, its first town councillor and its first senator. And, as the League's protest against Italy's corrupt and bankrupt system translates into successes at elections, it faces here the first sizeable challenge to show it can practise what it preaches. Its brief experience in Varese could influence voters in local elections on Sunday.

Which is somewhat unfair, because few tangible changes are yet to be seen. Mr Fassa, however, disputes allegations by Angelo Monti, his Christian Democrat predecessor, that he is limiting himself to day-to-day administration. His council has approved the outlines of a development plan to take Varese into the next century, transforming its road and public transport system and rescuing parks and gardens coveted by builders. It is founding an art school in one of the old patrician villas, and is planning fast road and rail links with neighbouring towns such as Como, 22km and 24 traffic-lights away, and Switzerland, 6km as the crow flies but often more than an hour by car. 'You can't see results in just a couple of months. But what we have decided already in this time means that in three or four years the face of Varese will be completely transformed,' he said.

The League is not entirely alone. With 17 seats in the 40-seat council, it is allied with the one Republican councillor and relies on the votes of three ex-Communists - a combination which, if it works well, could be a model for elsewhere.

Many have been alarmed by loose talk among League members of splitting up Italy and by their apparent hostility to southerners and immigrants - attitudes which have been markedly toned down as the movement comes closer to power. Here, Mr Fassa backed a social centre for immigrants, publicly supported the unity of Italy and demonstrated - as he puts it - 'that the League do not eat babies or privatise drinking water'.

Mr Fassa, 33, is a charmingly gangly, learned bachelor, who lives with his mother and grandmother in nearby Gallarate and peppers his conversation with Latin phrases and quotations from Aristotle. Although disappointed that he was not a Varesino, people quickly took to him. 'They like him. He is accessible, glad to talk,' said Massimo Lodi, second- in-command on the local newspaper, La Prealpina. 'People's mood has changed. They now have confidence in their administration.'

His greatest advantage is that he is different from the kind of person found in local politics over the past 15 years, Mr Lodi said. 'People could not stand the parties any longer. Two former mayors, MPs, councillors and any number of others had gone to prison. Anyone who replaced those faces would have done.'

But Mr Fassa's approach goes down well. 'People want two things from a town council. That it provides services without hitches and that it gives them a local identity in what is becoming a supranational society as we become more part of Europe.' Mr Monti says the League will be judged 'by its projects'. Mr Monti, whose term lasted only 13 days (until his deputy mayor was arrested), is seen as above suspicion, but the word 'projects' conjures up huge public works contracts conceived mainly for the kickbacks they would bring. There will be projects, but Mr Fassa is trying to generate enthusiasm for honest, old-fashioned administration, even on small things such as making the neglected fountain in the public gardens work.

One problem for the League, and other parties that never held power, is their lack of experience. This has led to gaffes, such as a decision to name a street after the murdered anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, only to find there was one already. But, shrewdly, Mr Fassa moved to avoid worse mistakes by appointing six 'technicians' to important posts: a headmistress in charge of education and a former chief of the traffic wardens to be responsible for traffic.

Even if the League were to do a good and honest job, it remains to be seen whether what began as a protest movement can hold together as a political organisation. It has attracted extreme right- and left-wingers, devout Catholics and agnostics. 'The League was simply passing the bus- stop at the right time. Some people got on because they liked it, others because there was no other bus,' says Mr Lodi. But as time goes on and the novelty wears off, contentious issues could drive them apart.