Berlusconi Feels The Northern League’s Sting

Berlusconi feels the Northern League's sting

Posted : Mon, 08 Jun 2009 14:05:46 GMT
Author : DPA

Rome – A strong European election showing in Italy by the anti-immigration Northern League is set to add bite to arguments that the regional-based party is becoming the proverbial tail that wags the dog of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government. On Monday with the vote tally almost complete, Berlusconi, through spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti, expressed “disappointment” with the results.

This despite the fact that a scandal surrounding the premier's personal life which dominated newspaper headlines and television debates during the election campaign, failed to deliver the sort of blow to Berlusconi his opponents on the left had hoped for.

But the amount of votes won was also far from the 45 per cent Berlusconi had predicted.

Instead his People of Freedom (PDL) party garnered around 35 per cent – a drop of over two percentage points from its 2008 general election triumph.

The PDL still scored a comfortable victory over the main centre-left opposition Democratic Party.

However, many PDL officials were left with the sense of a shift in the balance of power within the government.

“We lost out with respect to the League,” Bonaiuti said, blaming the “gossipy” campaign that he said had targeted the premier, but mainly the low voter-turnout in the country's southern regions – a traditional Berlusconi stronghold where the League lacks a political footing.

Bonaiuti's sombre reflection contrasted with celebrations in the Northern League camp where the party's 10.2 per cent marked a two percentage point improvement on its 2008 general election showing.

The result was all the more impressive because it also signalled an expansion of the League's support from its traditional northern strongholds in Piedmont, Lombardy and the Veneto.

For the first time inroads were made into the central regions of the Marche and Tuscany where Italy's centre-left traditionally receives most of its support.

A sign, commentators said, that while the Democratic Party – a merger of moderate Catholics and former communists – squabbles over leadership and identity issues, the League's message is spreading among working-class voters drawn by promises to protect Italian small businesses from “unfair” global competition and the need to safeguard Italian jobs by curbing immigration.

There's an “affinity between Italy and much of the rest of Europe where racist tendencies and demands for greater safety and security often blend,” wrote Massimo Franco in an editorial in the Corriere della Sera.

He and other commentators linked the Northern League's success to that garnered by xenophobic groups in the Netherlands, Austria and Britain.

However, they stressed that the League has successfully transformed itself into a party of government, moving away from its fringe-like beginnings when it promoted secession of Italy's more developed north from the rest of the country.

Now the Northern League's ascendancy serves as “an omen for the tensions that its stake in the government generates,” Franco wrote.

In the months ahead of the European vote, Italy's government pushed through parliament several Northern League-inspired bills, some of which Berlusconi said he did not personally support.

Many of these drew criticism from the Catholic Church, United Nations officials and human rights activists.

However, most of the controversial proposals are about to become law, including making illegal entry into the country a punishable offence, extending the period during which intercepted would-be migrants can be kept in holding centres, and the recruitment of civilians for anti-crime patrols in towns and cities.

Senior Northern League leader Roberto Maroni, Italy's Interior Minister, defended the measures when he hosted a meeting of colleagues from the Group of Eight a week before the European vote.

Urging greater international co-operation to combat illegal immigration, Maroni also briefed the other ministers on what he said was the “success” of a Rome-Tripoli agreement by which Libya has pledged to accept migrants intercepted by Italian vessels in international waters.

Since the agreement came into effect in mid-May, no illegal landings have occurred on Italy's shores, Maroni told his G8 colleagues.

He repeated the same message at Northern League election rallies.

Speaking after the election results were in, Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa, who is a senior PDL leader, appeared to suggest the strategy his party should follow to maintain the upper hand over its ally.

“The people must understand that credit for certain government policies must not just go to this or that minister, but to the government as a whole,” La Russa said.