A League of Our Own, Part One
This essay on the Lega Nord was published in February of 1993, after I spend considerable time with members of the Lega and had secured a long interview (followed by subsequent briefer meetings) with Umberto Bossi. Now that the Lega is once again in the ruling coalition and facing the wrath of the EU for cracking down on Third World immigration, it seems a good time to take a second look.
Nineteen ninety-two was an opportunity for Americans to reflect on both their past and their future. I n less than a month, we celebrated the birthday of Columbus and the transfer of power from the New Deal to the Big Chill, from the civics-class pieties of George Bush to the Penthouse improprieties of Bill Clinton.
I watched a good part of the campaign from an Italian vantage-point. I had gone to Italy primarily to speak about Columbus and the American tradition and to continue my very limited education in things Italian. At the end of the month, I was more confused than ever about Italian politics, but—as is always the case—I had learned something about my own country.
A year or so ago, a part-Italian friend took me to task for say- ing that Italy was in crisis. Without admitting I was right then, he now acknowledges the real sense of emergency that exists everywhere in Italy. At the end of the summer, the middle classes were practically up in arms against the government's handling of economic questions. F aced with mounting debt, the government ordered property-owners to pay a second round of real-estate taxes. All over Italy, people lined up to pay the impost and avoid the threatened penalties, only to discover that no one knew how much was owed, and, besides, the government had not printed up the tax forms.
The government wanted the extra money, in part, to pursue its futile plan to stabilize the lira on world markets. After hearing, day after day, that the lira would never be devalued, businessmen woke up one morning to read of the devaluation. Even opponents of the policy were outraged, and one businessman told me that the regime had forfeited any claim to be taken seriously.
The Italian economy is in ruins; none of the major parties inspires confidence even in loyal members; the Mafia is murdering every judge and prosecutor who stand in its way. In the midst of this crisis, the labor unions—pampered and coddled by the government—are once again threatening strikes that will shut down the entire country, just like in the good old days of the 1970's. I got up early one morning in Genoa to catch the train to Milan, and when I asked the desk clerk to call me a cab, she gave me a crude version of Hotspur's response to Owen Glendower's boast that he could summon spirits: "But will they come when you do call for them?" Somewhere in the monologue I picked out the most dreaded word in Italian vocabulary: sciopero (strike).
The unions have a right to be unhappy. After squandering vast sums of money on monetary stabilization, the government decided to balance the budget by cutting health bene- fits. The unions—part of the party-state that governs the country—went along, but when the most powerful union leader in Italy attempted to hold a rally, he was attacked by union members who have joined the Lega Nord, a coalition of localist movements in Northern Italv that preaches a doctrine of economic liberty and political decentralization.
The Lega has increased its share of the vote in every recent election and is now the dominant party in the rich industrial North. In response to the double taxation, the Lega's leaders called for a tax protest; their answer to government- controlled unions is to form their own unions; and their solution—only half in jest—to the collapse of the lira is to coin their own money), the “Lega.”
The ruling coalition is terrified. Opinion polls in Monza and Varese, two wealthy cities in Lombardia, gave the Lega 55 percent or better in the next mayoral elections—high figures in a country with dozens of parties. The government responded to these polls by postponing the elections. Umberto Bossi's threat, reported in the Corriera della sera last September, could not have been plainer: "If the government will not reverse its decisions, a march on Rome could start from Milan to ask for the North's secession."
Bossi's hand was strengthened by a recent victory in Mantova, a city outside the center of the Lega's strength. For the first time in years the Socialists openly campaigned together with the former Communist Party leader, Achille Ochetto, in a popular front with the Greens for the sole purpose of defeating the Lega, but when the votes were counted the Lega Nord polled 34 percent, roughly double what the second-place Christian Democrats (DC) received.
A high-ranking official of the Lega asked me what I thought of the government's postponement of elections, and when I called it "un piccolo colpo di stato," he smiled and expressed agreement. The elections were rescheduled for December (the day after the election an Italian friend called to say "La Lega ha stravinto"—it won hands down). So far, the second march on Rome has not materialized, but it is possible to sense the trembling of the DC leadership even from a thousand miles away. Former head of state Francesco Cossiga, in an interview in London, performed an uncharacteristic act of truckling diplomacy: "I prefer to think of it as an excursion (passeggiata)," he commented, explaining that unions and parties always come to Rome for their meetings. The headline should have read: "NEW LIGHT SHED ON MUSSOLINI."
Perhaps more frightening than Bossi's original threat was his denial last October of any plans for a march. Conceding that if he did decide to march "the citizens would support us," he explained that it was only his "profound democratic conviction that prevented him from venturing upon solutions of this type.'
I cannot think of a major American political figure since MacArthur who would let a little thing like democratic process stand in the way of his ambitions. If, for the time being, the head of the Lega Nord has rejected "solutions of this type," he began his electoral march on Rome several years ago. At the end of the 1980's, when the leghisti were boasting of getting 10 or 15 percent of the vote in local elections in Lombardia, the movement was considered a joke. Reviving the dialect and customs of their Lombard ancestors, the members of the Lega Lombarda struck most educated Italians as participants in a historical pageant representing Manzoni's I promessi sposi. Even two years ago, when the Lega's threat was confined to the North, Italians made fun of me for expressing an interest in a movement that was as irritating as it was quaint. They laughed when I tried to explain that whatever they might think of the style of the "Senatur" (Lombard for "senator"), his message of decentralized federalism and economic reform offered the only hope for Italy.
In general, the leghisti would like a new constitution along the lines of Swiss federalism. The country would be divid- ed into three republics of the North, Center, and South, which would function like Swiss cantons and maintain considerable autonomy in political, cultural, and economic affairs. Although regional and local autonomy is part of Bossi's original conception, the Swiss flavor of the three republics owes some- thing to Gianfranco Miglio, a senator and political scientist often described as the Lega's ideologue, even though he is technically independent.
Miglio has spent much of his professional life analyzing the deficiencies of the Italian constitution and proposing such remedies as a directly elected president and large autonomous regions. In his most recent book, Come cambiare, Miglio once again defends his idea of a federal system of macroregions and of a new Unione italiana that would give the peoples of Italy the rights of self-determination guaranteed by the Helsinki agreement.
Under a federal system, the historic regions of Italy—Lombardia, Toscana, Veneto, etc.—would be able to assert their cultural identities without interference from bureaucrats im- ported from other parts of the country. Traditionally, Italians have accepted the imposition of senior officials from outside their region as a guarantee of impartiality, a custom that echoes the institution of the podestà of the later Middle Ages. What disgusts many North Italians is the swarm of Southern bureaucrats, teachers, and policemen who have little or no sympathy with the customs and traditions of Lombardia or Piemonte.
One key to the Lega's growing popularity is its position on immigration. In reasserting the cultural identity of its regions, a federalized Italy would move to expel illegal aliens and tighten restrictions on immigrants. Despite the popularity of the Lega's stand on immigration, it—more than anything else— was responsible for much of the bad press.