Rome wary of laughing off Bossi

Separatist leader has bounced back, writes Andrew Gumbel

With most of the country at a standstill for the holidays, Italian newspapers tend to have a hard time filling their pages in August. Not this year though, thanks to the shenanigans of Umberto Bossi, the northern separatist leader who, with the keen eye of a well-versed expert in self- promotion, has taken full advantage of the lull to get everyone talking about him and little else.

Little had been heard of Mr Bossi since June, when his campaign to establish a separate state in the north, to be called Padania, came screeching to a halt as his party, the Northern League, was humiliated in a spate of local elections.

But then, starting last week, he decided it was time to go back on the offensive. The pretext was a list of appointments in Rai, the state broadcasting service, which heavily favoured supporters of government parties despite pledges by the new Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, to end the such practices. Mr Bossi lashed out at the government, ordering his followers to burn their television licences and knock out transmission stations across the north of the country.

In the same breath, he expelled one of his party's most popular lieutenants, the former parliamentary speaker Irene Pivetti, on the grounds that she wants to keep Italy as one country, albeit with a more federalist structure. Ms Pivetti instantly began organising rival rallies to Mr Bossi's, only to discover that her supporters were being intimidated by party loyalists in uniform green shirts.

Over the weekend Mr Bossi dropped another bombshell, accusing the secret services of planning a bomb attack on a bank in Milan with the intention of blaming it on him.

As usual, it is hard to know how seriously to take all this, since Mr Bossi's threats tend to be seven parts bluff to three parts performance art. The secret-service allegation, for example, has fallen apart already; the details of the supposed plot bear an uncanny resemblance to an episode from a futuristic political thriller penned four years ago by one of Mr Bossi's party colleagues.

Ms Pivetti's expulsion may also be a piece of political theatre intended to raise the League's profile. Two years ago another key party member, Roberto Maroni, walked out, citing irreconcilable differences with Mr Bossi, only to slink back later when no one was looking.

The government is nevertheless taking Mr Bossi's antics seriously and is already beginning to worry about a formal declaration of independence for Padania set for 15 September. Beneath the buffoonery lurks the unmistakable iconography of fascism - the greenshirts sound more and more like the Fascists' blackshirts, while the threat of attacks on transmitters is reminiscent of German-language neo-Nazis who used the same tactics to demand separatism in the South Tyrol in the 1960s. Already the demonstrations planned to mark Padania's independence day are being nicknamed the "March on the Po" in an echo of the March on Rome which brought Mussolini to power in 1922.

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