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Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy's Northern League

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Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy's Northern League
Supporters cheer during an annual meeting of the party. Photo: AFP
11:38 CET+01:00
In the next of our series of articles introducing you to Italy's major political parties, we take a look at the origins, ideology, and key players of the Northern League.

Origins

Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord in Italian, or simply Lega) was founded in 1991. That might sound young but actually makes it the oldest party in Italy’s parliament.

The party is sometimes referred to as il Carroccio, the name for a medieval ox-drawn altar used for pre-battle services in medieval Italian wars and one of the symbols of the Northern League. But its full name is ‘Northern League for the Independence of Padania’, referring to a large section of northern Italy.

It was born as a federation of several regional parties from northern and central Italy (Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany) but has become a major player on the national stage, particularly over the past three years, and has joined up with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia for the 2018 general election

 
Supporters of the party demonstrate against immigration in Milan. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

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Ideology

The crucial point is that the League wants more power for Italy's regions - particularly the northern ones. The exact form that power should take has changed slightly over the years, but the party constitution states that its goal is fiscal federalism, meaning the regions that make up Padania would get to keep tax revenues generated there.

This uniting aim means it has drawn support from voters from across the political spectrum. Founder Umberto Bossi and Lombardy governor Roberto Maroni were more on the left side of the spectrum, though under current leader Matteo Salvini the party has shifted increasingly to the right on issues such as crime and immigration while prioritizing northern independence much less. A new logo unveiled in December ditched the word 'north' and added the slogan 'Salvini premier' (Salvini for PM).

The party has always been critical of the EU, and the League's economic spokesperson recently said that if in power, the party would "begin all possible preparations to reach monetary sovereignty", contradicting claims by Forza Italia leader Berlusconi that his coalition allies had given up hope of ditching the euro.

Among its policies announced in the 2018 election campaign, the League has called for a flat tax at 15 percent; legalization and taxation of prostitution; free state-funded daycare; rejection of a bill that would grant Italian citizenship to those born and schooled in Italy with foreign parents; and tighter controls on immigration.

Support

Unsurprisingly, support for the Northern League is strongest in the country’s north. Currently, the presidents of two Italian regions, Lombardy and Veneto, are from the Lega Nord. It is also currently the second-largest party in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, and the third largest in Liguria, Marche and Umbria.

In general elections, the party’s strongest result was 10.1 percent in 1996. That figure dropped to 8.3 percent in 2008, then 4.1 percent in 2013 - with many typical Lega voters instead opting for new kids on the block, the Five Star Movement.

To many political commentators, it looked like the League was about to fade into insignificance, but in fact, quite the opposite happened.

Since Matteo Salvini took over as leader in late 2013, the party’s public support has leapt from under five percent to around 15 percent, according to opinion polls. That's a strong figure indeed in a country where no party has ever won an outright majority since the Second World War.

In this graph of Italian political opinion polls from February 2013 to January 2018, the Northern League is marked in green. Graph: Impru20/Wikimedia Commons

Big names

Umberto Bossi -- a former rock singer and laboratory technician -- was the founder of the League and led the party until 2012. He allied the Northern League with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia in three coalition governments during that time, though the relationship was a rocky one. He resigned over alleged appropriation of party funds in 2012, and last year was convicted of fraud.

Matteo Salvini has led the party ever since. He's an MEP but has called the EU a failed social experiment and the euro a "crime against humanity". Under his stewardship, the party's support has grown again and he even launched a movement aimed at the south under the slogan 'Us with Salvini' -- though this angered Bossi, who had started the party as a secessionist movement. Salvini's criticism of Italian and European immigration policy has regularly drifted into outright xenophobia.


Matteo Salvini. Photo: Gabriel Buoys

Roberto Maroni, the president of Lombardy, also served as leader for a brief period in 2012-13 and was seen as the party’s number two long before that. Both Bossi and Maroni have criticized the swing to the right which the party has taken under Salvini’s leadership, and Maroni announced he would not seek re-election. Salvini and Berlusconi said this ruled the Lombard out of any position in a potential centre-right government.

Luca Zaia, Veneto's regional president since 2010, is another big name in the party, and served as Agricultural Minister in the Berlusconi cabinet of 2008-2010. He and Maroni have organized referendums on greater autonomy for their regions, though these were not legally binding.

READ ALSO: Your introductory guide to Italian politics

 

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