League flounders in a sea of troubles: Italian party hit by scandals, electoral defeat and feuding

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The Independent Online
THE HITHERTO unstoppable Northern League gathers for its election campaign congress tomorrow awash in a sea of troubles.

The congress was supposed to agree on strategy for next spring's elections which, it was hoped, would sweep them into parliament as one of the biggest forces in post-revolutionary Italy. But a barrage of judicial investigations, a scandal over illicit donations, bitter attacks on its leader, Umberto Bossi, by its own President, Franco Rocchetta, defeats in last weekend's municipal elections and a cold shoulder from the country's industrialists - all within the space of a week - have hung a large question mark over this scenario.

The League prides itself on political machismo - its favourite slogan is 'ce l'ho duro' - literally, 'I've got a hard one'. But its no-holds-barred attacks against anything it does not like may cost it dear. Mr Bossi claimed President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro had stopped a Turin magistrate investigating former Communist leaders and is now under investigation, at Mr Scalfaro's instigation, for defaming the Head of State. The magistrate concerned is suing for libel.

The League's Mayor of Milan, Marco Formentini, and its extremist ideologue, Professor Gianfranco Miglio, who called on voters to withhold taxes are under investigation for inciting people to break the law. Mr Bossi is also under investigation for alleged threats against magistrates who are prosecuting members of the League.

Members are still reeling from the imprisonment, albeit for only 24 hours, of their administrator Alessandro Patelli, and his admission that he illegally took a donation of 200m lire ( pounds 80,000) from Carlo Sama, head of the Montedison chemicals giant, at the famous Doney's cafe on the Via Veneto. This is precisely the behaviour which the League has grown so strong by attacking in other parties, and many found it hard to believe.

A puzzling twist was given to the episode when Mr Patelli told magistrates that the money was subsequently stolen from the safe in his office during a break-in at the League's Milan headquarters. Mr Bossi claimed that the break-in was the work of 'deviant' elements in the secret services, such as those who have been accused of bomb plots and other subversive activities. Thus the 'system' - the old regime which Mr Bossi believes is trying to discredit the League - both gave it money and took it back, he said. 'We fell into a huge trap.'

As if this was not enough, Mr Rocchetta has repeatedly attacked Mr Bossi for being out of touch, for surrounding himself with mediocre yes- men, for being autocratic and 'for having got our political policy completely wrong'. Mr Rocchetta, who is founder- leader of the Veneto League and is smarting from the defeats in the municipal elections, also insisted that he was not being disloyal to Mr Bossi or splitting the movement.

A further blow was an announcement by Luigi Abete, the president of Confindustria, the industrialists' organisation, that it was effectively dropping its objections to the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communists, which could well be the dominant party in a left-wing government after the elections. The League had regarded itself as the industrialists' friend. At the same time League leaders are claiming that Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate who is thinking of launching a centre-right party, has been trying to recruit their members.

Mr Bossi wanted the congress to agree that the right- wing movement should move to the centre and perhaps join up with other groups to attract voters left homeless by the collapse of the Christian Democrats. Now he will also need to reassert his leadership and rally the troops. His MPs yesterday helped by declaring that the League will not be deterred by the 'concentric attacks' against it and that anyone who hoped to throw it into disarray would be disappointed.