Posted on April 15, 2008

Berlusconi Injects Glamour Into Cabinet, But Fears Raised Over Anti-Immigrant Party

Richard Owen, London Times, April 15, 2008

Silvio Berlusconi began building his new Government today after a sweeping victory in the Italian general election, but there were early concerns that his new administration will be beholden to the populist and stridently anti-immigrant Northern League.

The League, which doubled its vote to more than 8 per cent, opposes Muslim immigration to defend the “Christian identity” of Italy and detests the European Union, whose officials were once called “filthy pigs” by the party’s unpredictable leader Umberto Bossi.

Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty alliance plus the Northern League won 46.5 per cent of votes for the Lower House and 47.1 per cent in the Senate.

He is likely to live up to his promise to give at least four Cabinet posts to women, with Stefania Prestigiacomo of his Forza Italia party given the post of Minister for European Affairs, and Mara Carfagna, a former model, television presenter and Miss Italy contestant, mooted as Minister for the Family.

The new Parliament convenes on April 29, and President Napolitano is expected to ask Mr Berlusconi to form a government shortly afterwards.

The most intense speculation, however, is over the future power of the Northern League, which is likely to gain the Interior Ministry (Roberto Maroni) and the Ministries for Reform (Roberto Calderoli) and Welfare (Rosi Mauro). Above all Mr Bossi will expect high office, even though he had a severe stroke four years ago and can still barely speak.

Mr Bossi has, however, described African immigrants as “Bingo Bongos” and said illegal immigrants arriving by boat should be “blown out of the water”. During the election campaign he called on his supporters to “take up arms” against “that rabble in Rome” over allegedly confusing ballot papers.

Mr Berlusconi has crossed swords with Mr Bossi, once casting doubt on his mental state, with the latter at one stage describing Mr Berlusconi as a “mafioso” and “Berluskaiser”, raising doubts over whether the alliance will last this time.

Today Mr Bossi denied Mr Berlusconi would be “my hostage”, telling La Stampa: “He is my friend. We have an electoral pact, and we will honour it”.

The Northern League or Lega Nord was founded in 1991 to campaign for greater autonomy for northern Italy, which it calls “Padania”. Its leaders act as if the imaginary state of Padania existed, and have at times called for secession, playing on the resentment many northern Italians feel over subsidising the “lazy and corrupt” Italian South with their taxes.

The League brought down the 1994 Berlusconi government by withdrawing from it, but served for a full five-year term as part of Mr Berlusconi’s administration between 2001 and 2006.

It draws on medieval myths for its symbolism, takes a conservative stand on issues such as abortion and gay marriage and claims to represent ordinary families, workers and small enterprises.

One League poster asks “Guess who is last in line for housing, employment and health care?”, and pictures Chinese, African and Arab people ahead of Italians in a social services queue.

Some local League leaders have called for separate train carriages for immigrants, and the former mayor of Treviso, Giancarlo Gentilini, removed park benches in the town on the grounds that immigrants slept on them, remarking “We should dress them up like hares—and then, bang bang bang”.

Support for the Lega Nord reached 10 per cent in 1996, but by 2006 this had dropped to below 5 per cent—making its revival all the more remarkable.

In contrast to the League’s triumph the two Communist parties and the Greens, which stood as the “Rainbow Alliance”, were wiped out, failing to gain a single seat—another sign of Italy’s shift to the Right.

“Nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall Communism is finally dead in Italy” said Andrea Ronchi, a rightwing politician.

The Far Left debacle marks the end of the career of Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Refounded Communists and a former Speaker of Parliament.

Together with the collapse of other small parties on both Left and Right it also at last ushers in a more streamlined parliament of coherent rival blocs, with the 26 parties of the last legislature reduced to just six.

“Since the politicians failed to implement a simpler and more stable system, the Italian people have done it for them” said Professor Giovanni Sartori, an expert on electoral law.

The centre Left Democratic Party led by Walter Veltroni, 52, the former mayor of Rome, won 37.6 per cent in the Lower House and 38 per cent in the Senate, giving Mr Berlusconi the nine to ten per cent lead forecast in the last opinion polls two weeks ago.

Mr Veltroni however is credited with providing the impetus for a “simplified” and more stable Parliament by excluding the Far Left and the Greens, forcing left-of-centre voters to choose between the Rainbow Alliance and Mr Veltroni’s social democrats.

Exit polls wrongly indicated that Mr Veltroni, who campaigned with a programme of “change and hope” as “Italy’s Barack Obama”, has caught up and Left and Right were neck and neck, raising the prospect of deadlock.

Il Messaggero, the Rome daily, suggested this was because many Italians were reluctant to admit to pollsters that they intended to vote for Mr Berlusconi or Mr Bossi, thus giving a misleading impression.

Of the other Cabinet posts, the Economy Ministry will almost certainly go to Giulio Tremonti, who held the post in a previous Berlusconi administration and is seen as safe pair of hands with a sharp analytical mind; the Foreign Ministry to Franco Frattini, Italy’s EU Commissioner: and Defence to Ignazio La Russa of the post Fascist Alleanza Nazionale, which forms the “People of Liberty” alliance together with Forza Italia. Gianfranco Fini, the Alleanza Nazionale leader, is likely to become Speaker of the Lower House.

Mr Berlusconi said “The months and years ahead will be difficult and I am preparing a government ready to last five years”. He said his priorities were settling the future of state-controlled Alitalia and resolving and the rubbish crisis in Naples.

His campaign pledges included cutting taxes while reducing public debt, liberalising the economy and getting tough on crime—promises he failed to carry out when last in power, instead focusing his energies on measures to protect his own interests and avoid legal problems.

On Friday hearings resume in Milan in a trial in which Mr Berlusconi is accused of bribing David Mills, the estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, the British Olympics Minister, to give false evidence on his behalf in a corruption case.