Northern League plans to claim centre ground

THE Northern League, armed with a plan to divide Italy into three federated republics, proposed itself yesterday as the foundation stone for a moderate conservative bloc. 'Italy must not fall into the hands of the Communists,' declared Umberto Bossi. 'The League to the rescue]'

Leaders of the various regional leagues, or 'nations' as they call themselves, also firmly supported plans to withdraw the League's MPs from parliament after the 1994 budget has been passed, to try to force general elections. Delegates said they did not believe, despite clear statements to the contrary, that 'Rome' really wanted to hold fresh elections.

Mr Bossi launched his new dual strategy in an attempt to jolt the movement out of the morass into which it was threatening to sink after a series of judicial investigations against him and other leaders, a scandal over illicit donations and setbacks in the recent municipal elections. Having realised that the League was not likely to get the 51 per cent of the vote he aimed for in the general election, Mr Bossi shifted the League to the centre of the political spectrum. He proposed it as the core of a new 'liberal democratic' formation to keep out the left-wing alliance dominated by the former Communists, which looks likely to win the election.

He suggested an alliance with other would-be centre leaders seeking to fill the vacuum left by the disappearing Christian Democrats. In particular he was referring to the electoral reformer Mario Segni and the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who is working to create a party of his own. He remained hostile towards the neo-fascists whose leader, Gianfranco Fini, even as he spoke, was rapidly heading centrewards with his own proposal for a National Alliance.

Mr Berlusconi was reported to be extremely interested in the idea, but Mr Segni was distinctly cool about anything that would undermine the unity of the country.

The League's draft federal constitution, presented by Mr Bossi, envisaged the division of Italy into the republics of Padania (the north, centred on the Po valley), Etruria (the centre, roughly the area inhabited by the pre-Roman civilisation of the Etruscans), and the south. The precise areas would be established by plebiscites.

Each would have its own Diet or parliament, and the federal government would consist of a directly elected prime minister with a Directory composed of the governors of the three republics and leaders of the five already autonomous regions: Sicily, Sardinia, the Aosta Valley, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

The federal government would be responsible only for foreign affairs, monetary, banking and general economic matters and 'rebalancing' economic differences between the republics. Highly important for the League: taxes would be spent where they were raised and only a specific, limited amount redistributed to other parts.

Mr Bossi made it clear that the constitution was regarded as a basis for negotiation. But one thing the delegates who flocked from all over the north were adamant about was that Italy must be a federation. 'It is indispensable, unrenounceable,' delegates insisted. Otherwise, their right-wing ideologue, Gianfranco Miglio, warned: 'Northerners will not tolerate living in a centralised state any longer.'

The congress, held in Assago on the outskirts of Milan, found the League at a turning point. From a protest movement that could thrive on, or despite, outrageous attacks on the 'system' of the past 45 years it needed to become a credible political force to achieve its aims now the system has fallen. And Mr Bossi, not only because of the investigations against him for his more hair-raising attacks, is notably controlling his language.

Nevertheless the League's nerve has been shaken, and a touch of paranoia remains in accusations by Mr Bossi and other delegates against the press and 'big capital' for being against them and suggestions that the judiciary, hand in hand with the discredited old parties, was out to get them.