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The BBC's Frances Kennedy
talks about the importance of image to Italian politicians
 real 28k

Fanco Pavoncello, John Cabot University
"The new electoral system allows for greater polarisation"
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Thursday, 10 May, 2001, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Bossi focuses immigration fears
Umberto Bossi
Umberto Bossi: help or hindrance to Berlusconi?
By European affairs analyst Tamsin Smith

The Northern League has been holding anti-immigration rallies throughout northern Italy during the election campaign.


Many people say we are racist, others even say we eat babies

Giancarlo Pagliarini, Northern League
Speakers at these rallies often read aloud lists of crimes committed by immigrants to cheers from the crowd.

The town of Novi Ligure knows only too well how easily the Northern League can create hysteria.

When a mother and son were violently hacked to death in his town, the surviving daughter blamed an Albanian immigrant.

Mario Lovelli
Mario Lovelli: Northern League is playing on fears
The Northern League immediately organised a huge anti-immigrant rally.

But it had to be suddenly cancelled with the shocking news that the murderer was not an immigrant but the 16-year-old daughter herself.

"For the League this fear of immigration is a crucial issue which they say is real. They are obviously trying to exploit it to the full in this election campaign," says the mayor of Novi Ligure, Mario Lovelli.

The League's campaign pledges include setting immigration quotas for each of Italy's 20 regions and measures to ensure that only immigrants with work permits would be allowed into the country.

This is despite the fact that the north of Italy now desperately needs immigrants to fill growing labour shortages.

Changing faces

In the 1990s, the Northern League's leader Umberto Bossi campaigned to create an independent North Italian state called 'Padania'.

However since Italy joined the Euro this has lost much of its appeal.

Immigrants
Northern Italy needs immigrants to fill a labour shortage
Now it has turned to a populist and even xenophobic rhetoric which sets Europe's teeth on edge and invites comparisons with Austria's Joerg Haider.

Peter Semler, a freelance journalist investigating the Northern League is amazed at the makeover the party has undergone in recent years.

"The Northern League began as a ethno-regionalist party to protect the cultural identity of Northern Italy. It was also an anti-corruption party against centralism and Rome," he says.


Even if part of northern Italy is screaming for workers, the selection process required by the Northern league will be a new element

Bob Lasagna, Forza Italia
"In the last two years it has transformed itself as a party of fear... a party fighting against the fear of immigration, globalisation, crime and the fear of change."

Giancarlo Pagliarini, president of the Northern League group in the Italian parliament rejects this view.

"Many people say we are racist, others even say we eat babies. The point is that we are strongly against illegal immigration which is a dramatic situation in Italy".

Berlusconi's bargain

Aside from its core supporters, the Northern League is also expected to scoop up a significant protest vote.

There is a feeling of exasperation with the current centre-left government that not enough has been done against crime, prostitution, justice and illegal immigration.

Any influence Mr Bossi and his party might have in the new Italian Government would depend entirely on the size of Berlusconi's victory.

Umberto Bossi and Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Bossi will drive a hard bargain with Mr Berlusconi if he gets into power
If he wins by a large majority then the League will be less important and may even fade away altogether, but if his lead is narrower, then he will have to rely on the support of the League to survive in government.

However Berlusconi will be keen to avoid a repeat performance of 1994 when the League caused the collapse of Berlusconi's government by pulling out.

This time he has promised Bossi tougher action on immigration.

Bob Lasagna, a former Forza Italia member of parliament, predicts a rough ride for Berlusconi if he does not keep his word.

"Berlusconi will definitely be pushed by Bossi to push the whole problem of immigration. Even if part of northern Italy is screaming for workers, the selection process required by the Northern League will be a new element.

"No more open frontiers, no more open house and a different kind of immigrant, not these difficult bands of Albanians," he predicts.

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