The Northern League in Italian Politics
What is Lega Nord?
Italy has been one of the cradles of culture and democracy, and we, its people, believe in freedom of thought and expression more than anybody else, as far as it doesn't hurt our fellows' freedom and self respect. The Lega Nord has been marching for decades now on the thin edge of political negligence and anti-constitutionalism.
European countries are often negatively surprised by the racist use of language the Lega recurs to, and by the absence of 'tolerance' towards immigrants coming from foreign countries. Truth is, however, that Lega Nord is far from being the only party in Europe founded on the same premises. Notably, the French Front Nationale and the British National Front or British National Party have similar aims and ethos.
Up to a few years ago, the Lega Nord still differed from other right wing European groups because of some of its socio-political targets: if nationalists all over the world make of xenophobia their own daily bread, Lega Nord extended racial intolerance towards Italy's own people. The first subjects of the party's wrath were not only and exclusively immigrants, but also Southern Italians. As many of you may be aware of, the socio-economical map of Italy is very different between North and South, with the former being more prosperous and stable. Such a difference has roots as old as the State of Italy itself, if not older; historically, the South of the peninsula had always been colonial land for large European states. Sometimes it was France, sometimes Spain, but the situation would barely change: people and their land were exploited by the conquering state and very little was done to ameliorate living conditions, improve the level of industrialization or help the evolution of agricultural methods. In the North (and large chunks of the centre) on the other hand, the constant presence of the Savoias in Piedmont and Liguria, the Hapsburg in Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino, along with the stability given by the Granducate of Tuscany and the Papal State, had made the area relatively prosperous and industrially evolved.
Southern Italians lay great hopes in the Italian Unification (1861). Characterized, as it may be expected, by an enormous patriotic afflatus of many, Unification was wanted by the Savoias, however, not only and exclusively because they wanted to bring under the same flag a country which had been one culturally since the times of the Romans. The Italian royal family little cared about its Southern Italian subjects, and never hid it. The capital remained in Turin (eons away from the South) for 3 years, then Vittorio Emanuele II moved it to Florence and, after the final conquest of Rome, to today's capital, only because forced by his advisors. The South remained poor and neglected, just as it had been.
It may seem impossible, but that neglect is the seed of the cultural, social and economical differences we still experience between the North and the South today. Add a slighly different attitude towards life in general between Northerners and Southerners and you'll get the basis of national intolerance. The South became, to the eye of many, a liability for the whole country, because its infrastructure were weaker and because of organized crime, which proliferated because of a lack of interest or commitment towards the South on behalf of the Savoias. Throughout the 154 years since Unification, things have remained, in many respect, the same.
Instead of understanding the reasons behind cultural and social difference between North and South, while understanding that we are one people in spite of them, Lega Nord made of an over-simplistic view on the problem its winning card. Forget about history, the South is poor because its people don't work and never pay taxes. They also tend to be all mafiosi: this is, in very short words, what Lega Nord thinks about half of we Italians.
The situation has changed in recent years, however: the enemy of Italy is no longer the Southern Italian, but rather the immigrant, a new exploiter of Italy's resources and Italians hard earned money. With the autoctones finally all under the same roof, the non national are the dark beast to fight, just as it has been happening in many other parts of Europe. Lega Nord has now entered in full swing the realm of Europe's far right parties lacking any sort of theoretical and philosophical background to boot.
Criticism to the party
Beside the vulgarity of its linguistic style and the over-simplistic gross message it delivers, there is another, important aspect of the Lega Nord that needs to be underlined: the actual illegality of most of its demands, which openly fare against the Constitution.
This concept was also underlined by the former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, during one of the many celebrations in honor the 150th anniversary of Italy's Unification, in 2011, who had harsh words for the Lega Nord, its message and its methods:
Quello che si sente è spesso un incoraggiamento ridotto al minimo anche dal punto di vista dell'espressione verbale, grida che si elevano in quei prati in cui non c'è il Popolo Padano, ma una certa parte del corpo elettorale. Che ha scarsa conoscenza di alcune cose, tra cui l'articolo 1 della Costituzione.
"We are facing what should, more often than not, be considered a lowly message, even from the point of view of its language. Uncoherent cries rise from the northern fields of Italy where we find not the Popolo Padano (the allegedly racially different people of the North of Italy, as thought by Leghisti), but a mere section of the electorate, a section which has an extremely poor knowledge of some fundamental things, including the First Article of the Italian Costitution..."
... Which says, as a matter of fact that "Italy is a Democratic Republic founded on work. Sovranity belong to People, who exercise it in the forms and limits designated by the Constitution".
Lega Nord is well known for its propaganda, which is viewed as particularly dangerous by some; most striking is, to the eye of all Italians, the venomous dislike shown by the 'leghisti' for their fellow countrymen, especially when coming from people who, like Umberto Bossi himself, do have southern origins. As mentioned above, however, this specific characteristic of Lega Nord has today subdued to a seemingly more pressing need to denigrate immigrants.
Lega Nord and its history
Lega Nord is a regionalist party founded in 1991. Despite being recently established, its history is well rooted in the past, thanks to its links with some regionalist movements that existed in Italy more than 20 years ago.
The forerunner of this movement is Umberto Bossi, leader of the Lega Lombarda, the Lombard League (a Northern regionalist movement), who thought, at the end of 1980's, that a union among the several Northern regionalist movements was necessary in order to create a single federalist movement. In fact, before Lega Nord was founded, in 1991, there was a union among Piemonte Autonomista, Lega Lombarda, Liga Veneta, Unione Ligure, Lega Emiliana-Romagnola and Alleanza Toscana.
In the last few years, Lega has been subjected to criticism and controversies due to their political thought and in-your-face attitude. However, it is important to have a general knowledge of the ideology of the movement, the reasons for its birth, and its aims.
Origins, reasons and evolution
The complete name of the party is Lega Nord per l'Indipendenza della Padania, 'Northern League for the Independence of Padania', but it is simply referred to as Lega or Carroccio in newspapers and media. The term carroccio stands for an old four-wheel wagon, symbol of the town of Milan, that was given to its population by the bishop Ariberto da Intimiano. It represented the faith and union of the Milanese, and it was used by the medieval republics of Northern Italy that formed the Lombard League against the imperialist projects of Frederick I Barbarossa. The flag of the League is the Sun of the Alps, represented by six green petals positioned into a green circle with a white background.
Lega Nord's contemporary claims have ancient historical origins: the area Leghisti define Padania has always claimed to be sharply different from the rest of Italy, due to its traditional, historical and cultural background; it had also been asserting a right to autonomy by virtue of localism, importance of ethnicity as a nation, defense of traditional and popular culture.
Another driving force behind Lega Nord's ideology has always been the deep resentment towards Rome, as a symbol of the Italian Government, blamed for "stealing" money: hence the famous slogan, Roma ladrona (Rome, the monstrous thief). Politically, Lega Nord would accuse the Italian Government to be too centralized and not to offer enough independence to each single region. Northern people supporting the Lega claimed that the government in Rome wasted resources which were mostly collected from Northerners' taxes and production.
On these grounds, the Party was officially founded in 1991 with the merger of several regional parties, including Lega Lombarda and Liga Veneta and other Regionalist movements. These parties continue to exist as "national sections" of the federal party, presenting themselves in regional and local contexts with the local name accompanied by the national name of the Party such as Lega Lombarda-Lega Nord, Liga Veneta-Lega Nord and so forth.
The Lega emerged within the national political scene in the 1992's general elections, where it obtained 8.7% of the votes, 56 deputies and 26 senators. In the 1994's general elections Lega Nord gained only 8.4% of the votes, but its parliamentary representation increased in number, with 117 deputies and 56 senators. In that year, it joined Forza Italia, Alleanza Nazionale and the Centro Cristiano Democratico in order to form a coalition government under Berlusconi: Lega obtained five ministries in Berlusconi's government. In the 1996 general elections, the party gained a striking success with 10.1% of the votes. In that occasion, the party announced its desire to proclaim the secession of Northern Italy from the rest of the country, and to take the name of Padania.
In 2000, the party joined again Berlusconi's coalition and in 2001 it won, as part of the coalition itself, the general elections. Another triumph came in 2008 when the fall of Romano Prodi's government caused a call for early elections, which took place on the 24th of January 2008, where Lega Nord gained 8.3% of the votes. In 2009, the party obtained good results in the European elections and very good results in the regional elections of the following year. They gained 18 seats in each of the two chambers (Camera dei Deputati and Senato) forming the Italian parliament after the general elections of 2013. They are currently one of the four most voted parties in the country.
Some changes have happened at the top of Lega Nord in the last decade. Umberto Bossi, the historical leader of the party, suffered a stroke and semi retired from active political life maintaining, however, the role of president of the party. Before that, his place was taken as secretary of the party (basically, the highest active position within the party itself) by Roberto Maroni, in 2012.
Since the end of 2013, young Matteo Salvini has become secretary of the Lega Nord.
The young politician has been having a huge mediatic impact and is, just as current prime minister Matteo Renzi, a king of social media. In spite of his young age (42), Salvini has been a prominent member of Lega Nord for quite some time. Before becoming secretary of the party, he had served for 19 years as a representative of Lega Nord in the Milan city council, a position he abandoned once he was chosen as secretary of the party. Since 2009, he is also member of the European Parliament.
Faithful to the shock tactics of his party, Salvini has been supportive of anti-euro movements, as well as open on tv and on the net about his controversial opinions on immigration, foreign affairs and criminality.
Even if the original reasons for the birth of the Lega could be considered worthy and fair, it is important to underline that, in the course of time, its agenda has been controversial and has raised polemics and doubts: federalism or secession, alleged racism and xenophobia in primis.
As far as federalism and secession are concerned, it is not exactly clear if the members of Lega want a mere autonomy of the Northern regions, or a real secession of Padania. However, a first important step was taken in April 2009 when a bill towards fiscal federalism was approved by the Senate.
Federalism is not, though, the real issue at stake when it comes to Lega Nord and its policies: instigation to xenophobia and a general acceptance of racism seem to be the real worry of both national and international public opinion. The Lega has been accused of racism in more than one occasion, especially because of its blatant intolerance of ethnic minorities as well as Southern Italians, even though not all party's members do not all adopt the same line of behavior. Umberto Bossi remains protagonist of unpleasant episodes: one above all, his infamous statement, made during a party rally, about the right of the Italian border security to fire upon illegal African immigrants trying to enter the country via the sea.
On the international scene, Lega is particularly known because of its alleged use of racist language. In fact, it has sometimes hit the headline abroad and it has often been defined xenophobic. It has also been denounced by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) which asserted that "members of Lega Nord made a particularly intense use of racist and xenophobic propaganda".
However, despite all the controversial aspects and episodes, the party has been gaining ground and approvals from the Italian electorate. Only the next general elections will tell us if the Lega Nord is still as strong as it has been in the past decade. It will also be of great interest to see if its ideology has the power and the grip to eventually change the social, geographical and political structures of the country.
Edited and updated by Francesca Bezzone