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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 16:57 GMT 17:57 UK
Berlusconi's awkward ally
By Benedetto Cataldi
BBC Monitoring

Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government in Italy is going through difficult times.

One of the coalition partners, Umberto Bossi's Northern League, has been repeatedly criticising the government and threatening to withdraw support.

Mr Bossi's threats are all the more meaningful since it was he who brought down the first Berlusconi government in 1994 after only seven months in office.

Umberto Bossi
Bossi believes grassroots are growing frustrated
The Northern League's 17 senators are crucial to ensure the government has a majority in the upper house of parliament.

Alessandro Ce, the Northern League's Lower House whip, is among those to have publicly criticised the government.

"We want to tell the prime minister, calmly but firmly, that, overall, we are not satisfied by the government's actions," he said.


Mr Bossi's party repeatedly voicing its dissatisfaction over the issue of devolution, a crucial political project of the one-time separatist Northern League.

A Northern-League sponsored constitutional bill aimed at devolving exclusive powers in health, education and local policing to Italy's 20 regional governments has been watered down by the other coalition partners.

The Northern League's devolution bill, in fact, was incorporated into a more general constitutional bill reforming the relationship between central state and local powers.

The new bill introduces the concept of "national interest" as an overriding factor in any regional legislation, and makes special provisions for "Rome Capital".

Mr Bossi did not appreciate this move.

Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi depends on the Northern League for a Senate majority
"Our opposition is due to the fact that it makes devolution devoid of any meaning," he said.

The debate on devolution has highlighted the strains within the ruling coalition.

The Northern League's insistence on giving more powers to regional authorities clashes with the centralism and national feelings of the National Alliance, a post-Fascist coalition partner.

The former Christian Democrats in the ruling coalition have also voiced their desire to preserve national unity, an issue also raised by the Pope in his Christmas address.


Closely linked to the matter of devolved powers is, in Mr Bossi's eyes, that of "devolved" broadcasting.

Mr Bossi has threatened to quit the government if Rai Due, one of public broadcaster Rai's three channels, is not moved from Rome to Milan. The move is firmly opposed by the National Alliance and the Catholics.

"I feel extreme discomfort among my men: It is difficult for us to support those we have being going against for so many years," Mr Bossi said last month.

Such discomfort is shared by the Northern League's coalition partners.

"Frankly, the Northern League is starting to be a hassle," National Alliance spokesman Mario Landolfi said recently.

I have surrendered to the requests of the grassroots
Umberto Bossi
"A new way of staying in the coalition is required because it is not possible to suffer ultimatums, blackmail and threats every day, be it over a Rai channel in Milan, national interest, Rome Capital or milk quotas.

"One cannot think of being in an alliance threatening to pull everything down every day. It is not good for the coalition."

Election tactics

From Sunday 25 May, local elections are being held in Italy. In the first round, the Northern League is controversially running alone in several municipalities.

"I have surrendered to the requests of the grassroots. They have been telling me... Umberto, let's run alone at the spring local elections, we must count our numbers," Mr Bossi said when announcing the party's intentions in January.

This could spell trouble for Mr Berlusconi.

If the Northern League does poorly in the local elections, Mr Bossi could decide voters are not supporting the party's presence in government and pull the plug on the prime minister yet again.

Bossi rocks Italian Government
05 Apr 03  |  Europe

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