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The charismatic populist leader of the Lega Nord movement, who claims to defend the interests of rich northern Italy. His politics have oscillated between federalism and outright separatism, even seeing him become the champion of a newly mythical nation, Padania, and his campaigns have frequently been laced with rhetoric against immigration or against the inhabitants of poorer southern Italy. It's earned him comparisons to the Austrian right-winger Jörg Haider, although the boorish Bossi is far from Haider's slick political style.

Bossi was born in 1943 in the small town of Varese, and his early career had few of the hallmarks of a political aspirant. True, Tony Blair apparently used to play a mean guitar of his own too, but Bossi worked intermittently as a factory hand for several years before studying medicine in Milan and becoming a laboratory technician instead.

According to Bossi's spin on his political baptism, he was inspired to the Northern cause when he struck up a friendship in 1979 with Bruno Salvadori, whose Union Valdotaine group stood up for the autonomy of a small French-speaking region. In fact, it took quite some coaxing to talk Bossi into the Union, but once inside he became Salvadori's loyal lieutenant and bailed the Union out of its debts - watching his first marriage break apart in the process - after Salvadori died in a car crash.

Roma Ladrona

Bossi's first movement of his own, the Lega Lombarda (Lombard League), coalesced in 1982 from his circle of friends in Varese: some, such as Roberto Maroni, would remain key associates throughout his political life. Ever since the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, the country had grappled with the Southern Question, namely, how far the industrial north should subsidise the agricultural south. Stereotypes of south and north had evolved to match.

The Lega Lombarda's early years were spent raising its profile by means of the party newspaper, regular public meetings, the well-known regionalist pastime of painting place names in local dialect on to road signs, and, most of all, energetic campaigns of graffiti. 'Roma, Ladrona' ('Thieving Rome') became a frequent sight on Lombard walls, attacking central government for favouring the south at northern expense. Their most famous images depicted a Lombard hen, a regional symbol, laying golden eggs only to see them stolen by a caricatured southern peasant.

Italian politics was already notorious for corruption and clientilism; as the 1980s went on, Bossi's arguments that Rome needed to be refreshed with a clean slate found fruitful ground among the small businessmen of the north. In 1983, his instructions to sympathisers to spoil their ballots with the words Free Lombardy had appeared almost as quaint as the campaign to include Jedi as a religion on the United Kingdom's census; in 1987, the Lombard League sent its first deputies to the Italian parliament.

Bossi formed the Lega Nord in 1990, unifying his Lega Lombarda with over a dozen other autonomist parties. The set-piece rally announcing the new party took place at Pontida, the site where the twenty cities of the first Lega Lombarda had forged their alliance in 1167 against the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. The event almost recalled the Spanish nationalists' veneration of Covadonga, from which the centuries-long Reconquista began, if not the devotion of Serbian nationalists to the site of Kosovo Polje.

Repubblica del Nord

Under the banner of the Lega Nord, Bossi attempted to make his mark on national politics by calling for Italy to be reorganised as a confederation: the Republic of the North would be joined by republics of the centre and the south. In the midst of the massive Tangentopoli corruption scandals in which the traditional parties were implicated, the Lega's novelty factor helped it to fourth place in the elections of 1992.

However, Bossi lost this particular edge and his federalist dream with the advent of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi and his newly-formed Forza Italia party in 1994. Understanding that Berlusconi would disastrously split Bossi's own core centre-right vote, he entered a victorious coalition with Forza Italia instead: if you can't beat them, join them.

14 Lega deputies were rewarded with various ministerial jobs, including Maroni as Minister of the Interior, but the details of the repartition caused Bossi to split with Gianfranco Miglio, the university professor whose writing had paved the way for Bossi's advocacy of the three republics.

Bossi's part in the first Berlusconi government did not last the year: Berlusconi, somewhat understandably, took more interest in national media policy than in federalist reform, and Bossi chafed at the bit, delighting silly-season reporters that August by announcing irritably that in the 1980s he had held back what verged on the entire population of Bergamo from marching on Rome. He walked out of the coalition with Forza Italia and Gianfranco Fini's semi-fascists that December. Perhaps much to his satisfaction, the government did not survive the disagreement.

Forza Padania

The Lega remained the fourth largest party in the 1996 elections. Still in opposition, Bossi became an outright separatist for a time and developed the policy for which the Lega is perhaps best known internationally: the separate nationhood of Padania. According to the Lega's ideologue Gilberto Oneto, the Italian peninsula did not begin in the north but with the Apennine mountains, and 'Padanians' were a Celtic people ethnically separate from other Italians and in fact had more in common with the Romansch of Switzerland, Germans in the Tyrol and even Slovenes than with the Latins of the south.

Padania received its christening in September 1996, in an event which tapped into the same reserves of folklore as the Pontida rallies: Bossi ceremonially filled a flask with water from the source of the river Po, took it downstream to Venice and poured it into the lagoon, symbolising the declaration of Padanian independence. Somehow. In official photographs, Bossi became increasingly fond of his green shirt, which it now helped ambitious Lega members to wear.

Bossi was anxious to maintain tight control over his party, and new joiners had to serve a six-month probation with Supporter status before they were able to apply for promotion to Ordinary Militant. Militants could be demoted if they failed to maintain a sufficient level of activism, and those found to belong to any other party were summarily ejected. Even Lenin, in his years strengthening the backbone of the Bolshevik party, might have approved.

The emphasis on Padania led to disaffection within the Lega Nord: the Liga Veneta, representing the Veneto region, muttered that if anybody was reviving nations then Venetia deserved to be one too. The polemic came to a head in 1998, when Bossi expelled the Liga Veneta's leader Fabrizio Comencino. Other moderates believed that the Padanian antics hardly suited the serious party they expected the Lega to be.

Crocodile Tears

Since toning down the Padanian rhetoric, Bossi has turned his anger towards the EU, while seeing federalism becoming a mainstream buzzword in Italian politics. Despite the unpleasantness of 1994, he resumed the coalition with Forza Italia in 2001, becoming a catch-all Minister for Reform in the Berlusconi government.

Bossi's denunciation of the EU as both 'Stalinist' and fascist' provoked outspoken comments from one of his fellow ministers, Rocco Buttiglione, that any further remarks on the same lines would give the impression that Italy did not believe in Europe.

Resuming a Lega tactic of 1990, Bossi has also taken a hard line on immigration. When nearly a thousand Kurds attempted to enter the country after their ship sank off Catania, Bossi described anxieties for their condition as 'crocodile tears' and asked for them to be sent back to Iraq. In June 2002, he and Gianfranco Fini attempted to introduce the so-called Bossi-Fini Law, making work permit regulations more stringent, introducing fingerprinting for all new immigrants and cracking down on the human traffickers who help them on their way.

This second spell in government did not quell Bossi's taste for the bizarre, and in November 2002 he denounced a TV miniseries about Napoleon Bonaparte. According to Bossi, the show, which starred Gerard Depardieu, Isabella Rossellini and John Malkovich, glamorised a foreign occupier who imported the alien ideals of the French Revolution.

In April 2003, Bossi gave Berlusconi reason to suspect he was up to his old, coalition-wrecking tricks, when he insisted that one of Italy's state television channels, Rai Due, transfer its headquarters to the Lombard city of Milan. During the argument, he blamed Catholic parties in the ruling coalition for defeating a recent bill which would have stopped any individual from owning more than a set number of television stations and thwarted any monopolitstic aspirations Berlusconi might have harboured.

Read more:
Anna Cento Bull and Mark Gilbert, The Lega Nord and the Northern Question in Italian Politics
Damian Tambini, Nationalism in Italian Politics
"E' un'umbriaco, un animale, un criminale politico"

"He's a drunk, an animal, a political crook"

   -- Gianfranco Fini, referring to his future partner in government, 1994.

Seems Fini might have a point. Lately (March 2003) he's been pissed at Bossi for convincing another crook to move the national headquarters of Rai Due, the second national public network, up to Milan from Rome. Milan is the power-base for both Bossi and Berlusconi.

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