League voters strike fear into establishment: Umberto Bossi's party looks set to deal a fearsome blow to the old order during local elections in Italy this weekend, writes Patricia Clough from Monza

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SLOGANS fall on fertile ground. 'Thieves of Monza, your time is over,' the posters warn. 'The thief-hunting season is open. You have only one bullet, don't waste it.'

'The Mafia is coming north with the parties,' others warn. 'We must stop the Mafia in the voting booth,' cries the star speaker, and some 1,500 citizens who have skipped the Milan- Eindhoven football match to listen to him rise to their feet, to thunderous cheers and applause.

The quiet, hard-working and, mostly, obedient Catholic people of Monza have had enough. On Sunday and Monday many will defy the urgings of Archpriest Leopoldo Gariboldi and the 17 local priests to vote for the Christian Democrats as they have for years. They will ignore warnings from worried politicians that the siren song is luring them into a secessionist, racist and dangerous trap - and they will vote for the Northern League.

Monza is one of 56 Italian towns that hold local elections at the weekend. More than 1 million people will be voting, which would normally make it a minor event, but this time the outcome is being awaited as if it were a national referendum. For the results promise to be another blow from the huge battering ram of protest which is systematically bringing down the Palazzo, the fortress of power, privilege and corruption which the traditional parties have built up since the Second World War.

The ruling parties are particularly nervous about Monza and nearby Varese, home town of Umberto Bossi, the Northern League leader who is bringing audiences across northern Italy to their feet with his attacks on the system. There was even a move to postpone these two elections until next year, which collapsed amid a general outcry of indignation. But there are also towns like Reggio Calabria, which has been shocked out of its southern resignation by charges against four local politicians, three Christian Democrat and one Socialist, for conniving with the Mafia in the murder of a fifth. And there is Fiumicino, near Rome, where the reformer Mario Segni and his allies are challenging the Christian Democrats who are synonymous with the corruption and 'clientelismo' that has pervaded politics for decades.

The people of Monza are tired and angry. The bribes extracted by the city fathers allegedly run to pounds 2m to pounds 3m - modest compared with Milan, 10 miles away, but quite enough for a town of some 124,000. Workmen are still hammering on the roof of a large apartment and office block built slap in the middle of the town's picturesque conservation area. It allegedly took bribes of pounds 30,000 to get the planning rules bent.

Long-distance traffic clogs the streets, transport is poor, parking is virtually impossible. A by-pass, an underground railway branch to Milan, a new site for the market have been delayed for years by squabbles, crises, and reshuffles, not, the citizens have learned, over questions of principle, but over who should get what.

In the public prosecutor's office two keen young magistrates are unravelling the murky deals of the past 15 years. They have had 22 councillors and local politicians arrested. The town is being run by a government commissar.

And, as the veil is slowly lifted on the close ties between the parties and the Mafia in the south and the spread of the Mafia to the north, many people are frightened that the Mafia could come to Monza too. 'We don't want to be like the south,' said Candido Rossi, a municipal driver and League activist. 'We want to decide what happens in our own town.' Umberto Bossi cleverly plays on this fear. 'The biggest Cupola (government) of the Mafia is in Piazza del Gesu' - the headquarters of the Christian Democrats in Rome, he shouts.

The Christian Democrats and Socialists have cleaned up their act. Their candidates, with one exception, are completely new faces. All the parties are now promising to be 'at the service of the citizens', and to 'save Monza'.

But it seems nothing can stop the League. In Monza, one third of the electorate will give it their vote, making it by far the biggest party in the town hall. Even the Socialist Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, betrayed his concern by warning that the League was 'dangerous', implying that it could turn Italy into another Yugoslavia. To which Mr Bossi retorted: 'Dangerous for himself, his job and his party.'

Gianni de Michelis, the flamboyant Socialist former foreign minister, is to be prosecuted for corruption. The Chamber of Deputies voted on Thursday to waive his parliamentary immunity.

(Photograph omitted)