For a man who was pronounced politically, and almost literally, dead just a few years ago, Umberto Bossi has made a remarkable comeback.
The head of a small xenophobic political party, Bossi has emerged as Italy’s kingmaker, the power player who was key in returning Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to office in recent elections and who will continue to call many of the shots.
That victory last month, which included the election of Rome’s first right-wing mayor since World War II and the stiffest rejection ever of communists, was part of a significant shift in favor of the Italian political right, composed of restyled former Fascists, anti-immigrant forces and traditional conservatives.
Bossi and three other members of his Northern League party were given choice seats in the new Cabinet, including control of the Interior Ministry, which oversees police and most domestic security.
In this climate, it came as little surprise that the government’s first action has been a harsh police crackdown on the Rom, an oft-targeted minority also known as Gypsies.
Bossi and the Northern League are widely seen here as the moving force behind the decision to target Gypsies and illegal immigrants, two groups blamed for a rash of recent crimes. Hundreds of Rom and foreigners were arrested, scores deported, and ramshackle Gypsy camps razed or burned to the ground by either authorities or vigilantes.
“All Gypsies must go,” the league’s Davide Boni, an official in the Lombardy regional government, said in an interview in his office in Milan.
The league, which is based in Lombardy, would add most Romanians and Muslim immigrants to the list, Boni said. Overall, he said, the party advocates reducing immigration to between 5% and 10% of its current level. “That way, you have immigration and integration,” he said. “What you have now is invasion.”
The league and its right-wing partners, including Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, were able to capitalize on Italian fears about and prejudices toward the foreign-born, sentiments that are intensifying as the number of new arrivals grows and the economy plunges into recession. Their electoral victory also reflected a deep-seated admiration among many Italians for the kind of populist demagoguery that Berlusconi and Bossi represent.
Italy is a relatively conservative society, and the right, which most vociferously espouses traditional values, generally does well in politics.
The Northern League surprised analysts by finishing a strong third in a race in which dozens of parties were running, in part by making inroads in working class areas where the left had dominated. The party gave Berlusconi’s government a comfortable majority.
Still, many Italians were taken aback to see the new position of influence bestowed on Bossi, who four years ago had a near-fatal stroke that prompted even some of his allies to write him off. He still walks unsteadily and slurs his speech, but he remains combative and provocative, and is clearly relishing his new grip on the national agenda.
“People want this country to remain theirs,” said Bossi, who once advocated shooting at boats bringing immigrants to Italy’s shores.
The Northern League emerged in the early 1990s as a party advocating the secession of Italy’s wealthier north from the rest of the country. The party these days has toned down the secession rhetoric and instead campaigns for more autonomy and “devolution” of central government powers to regional authorities.
League supporters are resentful that the industrial north subsidizes less affluent parts of the country and are demanding to be allowed to retain and spend more tax revenue, rather than sending it to central coffers in Rome. It’s a north-south divide that Bossi exploited in the election.
Bossi holds leverage over Berlusconi because withdrawing his party’s support from the ruling coalition could topple the government -- as Bossi did in 1994, abruptly ending Berlusconi’s first term.
Bossi was named minister for reforms in the new government, an ideal platform for changing the law to give more autonomy to the north.
Another Cabinet post went to the league’s Roberto Calderoli, best remembered for appearing on television in a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad and for planning to parade pigs on land where Muslims were attempting to build mosques, both gestures seen as insults to Islam.
At Berlusconi’s first Cabinet meeting, members this week approved a “security plan” that includes tough anti-immigration measures. The plan, which must still be adopted by parliament, would make entering Italy illegally punishable by up to four years in jail; confiscate property rented to illegal immigrants; make it easier to expel them; and quadruple the waiting period for a foreigner married to an Italian to become eligible for citizenship.
Berlusconi’s other main partner in government is the National Alliance, a party formed as a successor to Mussolini’s Fascists. Its leader, Gianfranco Fini, who has struggled to distance himself from his neo-fascist past, became speaker of the lower chamber of parliament. And another National Alliance politician, Gianni Alemanno, was elected mayor of Rome.
For 60 years, leftist and centrist parties had controlled the capital’s City Hall. When Alemanno arrived at the Michelangelo-designed Campidoglio, supporters greeted him with stiff-armed Fascist salutes. Alemanno, who insists that he is not a racist or xenophobe, pointedly paid a visit to Rome’s main synagogue. Then he sent police into the capital’s largest Rom camp, a squalid collection of tin shacks, dirty children and rubbish.
Although many of the Rom, by their own account, make a living through petty theft, many others have been in Italy for years, work and go to school. A Rom originally from the former Yugoslavia ran for parliament in the last election. As a community, they are terrified of what they see as hysteria that has painted them all with the same brush.
“The sad thing is that racism toward Gypsies is not only found in people but it’s also institutional,” said Maurizio Pagani of Opera Nomadi, a Rom advocacy group.
The most shocking incidents occurred last week in Naples, where residents, reacting to reports that a Gypsy woman had attempted to kidnap an Italian child, torched several camps, forcing hundreds of men, women and children to flee. Many were later loaded in the back of trucks and taken to safety, in scenes that United Nations officials compared to “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans in the 1990s -- the very events that drove some of these Rom to Italy in the first place.
The European Union, Spain and international human rights organizations condemned the actions. Italy could face sanctions.
Although the interior minister, the league’s Roberto Maroni, publicly condemned the vigilante violence, Bossi chimed in with an apparent justification: “People do what the state can’t manage.”
Maria de Cristofaro in The Times’ Rome Bureau contributed to this report.