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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bossi's League Uses Almost Illegal Tactics

Political parties usually need tags to make clear what they stand for and where they lie on the spectrum from left to right. But it is more and more difficult to know how to describe Italy's Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi.

Is it a regionalist movement, or does it stand for the outright secession of northern Italy from the rest of the country? Is it a mainstream democratic party, or are there hints of extremism in its advocacy of civil disobedience campaigns and in its supporters' fondness for uniforms (green, admittedly, rather then black or red)?

To the first question, the answer appears to be that, since last April's elections, the League has become more overtly separatist than ever before. While the rest of the political establishment in Rome was recently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Italian republic, Bossi organized an alternative ceremony for the "Independent Republic of Padania" -- named for the Po river, which flows across northern Italy.

The ceremony blended the lighthearted with the subversive. League activists threw custard pies at a picture of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, while Bossi loyalists who styled themselves "ministers" swore an oath to Padanian self-determination.

The League's next targets are the prefects who are the appointed representatives of the central government in northern Italy. In what would represent a significant raising of the stakes in his contest with Rome, Bossi wants the prefects evicted from their offices.

Bossi's problem is that opinion surveys do not suggest widespread public support in northern Italy for complete secession. Autonomy and lower taxes are obviously popular themes in a region that is one of Europe's richest and has grown tired of subsidizing the poorer south, but this does not yet translate into a desire for a wholly independent state.

Bossi says he wants a "Czechoslovak solution," alluding to the peaceful 1993 split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There are parallels with northern and southern Italy here.

Yet the two cases are not identical. The Czechs and Slovaks are different nations in a way that "Padanians" and southern Italians are not. Despite the varied economic performances of north and south, Italy has been a more homogenous society in this century than Czechoslovakia was. There is also little indication that southern Italy would wish to go its own way, whereas many Slovaks in the early 1990s clearly did.

To the question of how extremist the Northern League is, one can observe that Bossi sometimes makes remarks -- such as urging his supporters to "oil their Kalashnikovs" -- that do not sound like those of a politician dedicated to democratic principles. Yet the League has acquired its influence in northern Italy by attracting votes in free elections, not by throwing its weight around on the streets.

That said, Bossi must tread a careful path from now on. He is perilously close to adopting tactics that any democratically elected government would find hard to avoid branding illegal.

Bossi should remember that the popular mandate in the April elections was won not by his League, but by Prodi and the parties of the left. They are promising tax and administrative reforms to benefit northern Italy. It is their right to show what they can do, and Bossi should respect it.