Umberto Bossi is no Dorian Gray but somewhere in his attic, he has a locked cupboard. Instead of a portrait, there is a set of scales; one side weighs the advantages that the coalition with Berlusconi brings the Lega Nord (LN, Northern League). The other side measures the cost of that alliance in electoral terms.
Not being privy to Bossi’s inspections, I do not know which side is heavier, but I do know that since last week’s elections in Milan the costs weigh much more heavily than before but not enough to make him break with Berlusconi and his Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom). Tomorrow and Monday the Milanese will give the balance another shove when the outgoing PdL mayor, Letizia Moratti, fights for her political life against Giuliano Pisapia, the centre-left candidate who beat her by more then six percentage points in the first round.
To guarantee full support, Bossi demanded that one or maybe two ministries should be transferred to Milan, maybe even the Ministry of Economics “because Milan is the centre of the Italian economy”. One of the LN ministers, Roberto Calderoli claimed that if they were not given ministers, then the north should stop paying taxes “no representation, no taxation”. Most of the PdL said no, the rightwing mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, very loudly. Berlusconi himself has kept very quiet.
Instead, he has raised the ante by introducing what one columnist, Barbara Spinelli, called “toxic propaganda”. Older English readers will remember Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech in which he used Virgil’s phrase (“the Tiber will flow with blood”) to threaten Britain with the consequences of immigration. It was a racist speech which cost Powell his career; Berlusconi and his supporters are using far more inflammatory language and few seem to mind. Even Spinelli does not seem to realise the longterm effects of the poison. Whoever wins this weekend, this type of language has been used by the prime minister, not by some neo-fascist maniac on the fringes. It will be difficult to bring Italian political language back to acceptable European levels.
If Pisapia wins in Milan, the city will become a Gypsytown (Zingaropoli) says Berlusconi; it will be a Muslim city and one in which immigrants will take over. And as if that is not enough, it will be Stalingrad (a metaphor for unreformed communism rather than successful resistance to Hitler’s armies) with hammers and sickles taking over as the city symbol. Pisapia is accused of supporting the left-wing “social centres” (centri sociali), stigmatised as hotbeds of anarchist revolution at the same time as supposedly being part of the city’s radical chic, out of touch with reality. He is also accused of wanting to intruduce gay marriage and supporting abortion and euthanasia.
These last are a distortion of reality and are bad enough; the first three are overtly racist and will haunt Italian politics for years to come as the country tries to deal with the real pressures which mass immigration engenders.
Pisapia has indeed said that he is in favour of building a mosque in Milan – Rome already has the largest in Europe together with an Islamic cultural centre since 1995, designed by the distinguished Italian architect, Paolo Portoghesi. The Italian Bishops’ Conference has said that they have nothing against a Milan mosque. Milan has as many as six irregular mosques, one of which in viale Jenner has been accused of encouraging extremisms. All were accepted by Moratti’s administration and her predecessor.
He has also said that legal immigrants should have representation in the city council – in many other cities including Alemanno’s Rome, they already have both the vote and their own councillors. Last year Berlusconi complained that Milan looked like an “African city” and he was not referring to the architecture. He has also said explicitly that he is against “a multiethnic Italy”.
Quite apart from the ethics and legality of this type of racism, Berlusconi and the centre-right are encouraging behaviour which will make integration all the more difficult as his remarks become usable. It is not just Berlusconi who has been playing this tune, but whole sections of the PdL and Lega Nord have been given team orders and they followed them. It is a far cry from forcing Powell to leave politics.
The other remarks are pale in comparison.
Taken all together, they show a desperation which suggests that Berlusconi’s polls (public polls are not permitted in the lead-up to elections) tell him that Moratti will lose the run off. The same is true in Naples except that the centre left is doing its best to show a divided front and allow the centre right to win.
In any case, Berlusconi has said explicitly that he will not resign if the PdL lose Milan and Naples even though he started the campaign staking his future on Moratti’s election and his success as city councillor in Milan.
But in any case, it does not depend on Berlusconi; if those scales in Bossi’s attic weigh much further on the cost side, it will be Bossi who pulls the plug. An opposition victory in Milan and Naples would increase that weight and a government loss in next month’s referendums would probably tip the balance. Bossi could make his move at the League’s summer beano at Legnano on 19 June. That would be spectacular but it’s more likely that they’ll spend the summer negotiating over a possible future government.
In the meantime real political issues are ignored while the politicians play campaign tunes; they are in the doldrums as the constitutionalist Michele Ainis suggested. A correspondent, Yusef Izmirli, pointed out that Italian vessels are supplying Qaddaffi with petrol at the same time as its planes are bombing his facilities. It would be interesting to know how much the government knows about it. Elections are not everything but until Monday evening, we’ll concentrate on them alone.