Commentary: “Long live an independent Padania!”

 ROME -- Not for nothing the self-declared “Celts” of the Northern League worship Braveheart as one of their heroes. But Mel Gibson/William Wallace cries “freedom!” a moment before execution; after his version yesterday at the Northern League’s annual rally at Pontida, Roberto Maroni went back to his day job of being a minister of the Republic of Italy. Incongruous to say the least to demand independence from the government that you’re part of.

 The grand old Welsh Labour politician, Nye Bevan said famously that “if you can’t ride two horses at the same time, you shouldn’t be in the circus”. Umberto Bossi and the League have put on the same show for 20 years so they should be good at it but in the latest Pontida rally the contradictions were just too visible. The two horses haven’t changed but they have moved a long way apart. The whole point of the Pontida show is like most political conventions and congresses; it should energise the base and show them that the League is still a revolutionary movement fighting for the good of the common, straight-talking (northern) people against thieving, plotting, dishonest Roman, southern and establishment interests. Hence Maroni’s call for independence (and calls to Bossi from the crowd for “secession”.

 Maroni also attacked the war in Libya, NATO which was “able to stop ships entering Libya but not the refugees leaving” and the magistrates who are “more concerned about immigrants than our own people” and a government which does not help the northerners who do the real work in the country. In a very short speech, he took on NATO, the Church (at the same time as Pope Benedict was exhorting the faithful in San Marino to look after the less well off, and the outgoing archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Tettamanzi made solidarity to immigrants part of his mission), the judiciary, the EU and at least part of the government, specifically on fiscal policy; his was an appeal to those in the crowd waving “Maroni Premier” placards. There is nothing like having enemies to unite one’s own people; but when you’ve stopped attacking the “enemies” and insulting them it is then much more difficult to work with them and deal with real issues.

 That is what Maroni does when he is riding his other horse. He has been Minister of the Interior since May 2008 and for eight months in 1994 (and deputy prime minister at the same time), for five full years he was Minister of Labour (2001-06). He and three other League Cabinet ministers, voted extra status to Rome and supported the intervention in Libya. “Consistency”, “resign” and “collective cabinet responsibility” are obviously not part of Maroni’s or the League’s vocabulary. In contrast, Bossi speech was quintessentially reasonable. It was if Bossi and Maroni had exchanged roles. He laid down a series of conditions for the League’s continuing support of the government, mostly vague like passing resolutions in cabinet rather than actually implementing reforms.

 Ilvo Diamanti, who has studied the League for more than 20 years and knows it better than most wrote with surprise this morning that far from the usual plaintalking Bossi, he used language redolent of a past era. He sounded like a Christian Democrat to the point of being like the most obscure of them, Aldo Moro, who needed a soothsayer to interpret the arcane messages. Bossi’s speech has kept Berlusconi and the PdL happy for the moment. They are not going to pull the plug… yet. Maroni’s speech was ignored by most of the media and both the PdL and left for what it was, a speech for the faithful and his first campaign speech as possible successor to Bossi.

 The problem is that the League’s grassroots are not happy. Some 55% of League voters are dissatisfied with the Government’s performance and many of them showed their displeasure in the recent local elections and the referendums. Both Bossi and Maroni know that if they left the government today, they would be seriously punished by their electorate. They cannot leave until they have something to show to their own people for the last three years in government. Hence the demands. Four ministries should be moved to Milan and Monza – not necessarily a wise move as other parts of the north will complain that they have been left out. It is in any case not going to happen for practical reasons as well as the massive opposition from the South and Rome. Bossi wants a new economic stability pact to give local authorities greater spending power, a constitutional amendment reducing the number of parliamentarians and making the senate a “chamber of the regions” (an idea which has been floating around for almost two decades and which no one opposes strongly), reduction of the costs of politics (everyone in favour as long as it doesn’t affect my budget).

 These are all vague enough for Bossi and the other League leaders to decide when and how they will leave. So once again, a possible cathartic moment has passed (predictably, by the way). There will be another one on Thursday when the Chamber discusses Tremonti fiscal package. But it won’t be over “until the fat lady sings…” I’m sorry, until the short man in make-up finally leaves. Until then, both Bossi and Maroni will have to go on riding their two horses. 

 James Walston is Professor of International relations at the American University of Rome