Lega reaches end of road
Toby Abse reports on the scandal that has engulfed the main Italian far-right regionalist party
The Lega Nord has been a major force in Italian politics since 1992, claiming to represent the honest citizens of the north in opposition to the corruption of Rome and the parasitism of the south - in 1996 it took over 10% of the vote in a general election. However, it now seems to have entered a downward spiral of irreversible decline, sparked by one of the biggest corruption scandals to hit an Italian political party since the downfall of Bettino Craxi and the disintegration of the Partito Socialista Italiano in 1992-93. The last couple of weeks have seen the resignation of Lega leader Umberto Bossi, together with the departure of other senior officials accused of misappropriating party funds.
The situation in which Europe’s most successful group of xenophobic and Islamophobic racists find themselves is rich with irony. Every single accusation that the Lega, usually with very ample justification, made against the old political parties of the so-called First Republic (1946-94) can now be thrown back at the Lega itself. Clientelism, nepotism, bribery, corruption, abuse of public office, misappropriation of taxpayers’ money, systematic and longstanding links with organised criminals based in southern Italy - in short every type of crime and misdemeanour once associated with Christian democracy or Italian socialism in its last degenerate, Craxian phase is now revealed as the habitual practice of the erstwhile moralists of Padania.
It is now crystal-clear why Bossi’s originally purely tactical decision to ally with Silvio Berlusconi for electoral purposes became a strategic necessity after the regional elections of 2000. It is no accident that without the protection of their Milanese godfather (Bossi himself called Berlusconi the “Mafioso of Arcore” in the 1994-99 period, when the Lega was pursuing a more radically separatist course), the amateurish petty crooks of the Lombard provinces would have been vulnerable to any determined investigation. However, the publication on April 12 of an eight-page dossier of documents on the Bossi scandal as a special supplement to the Berlusconi family daily Il Giornale showed that Berlusconi has now thrown the Lega to the wolves.
The Lega has quite clearly been exposed as misusing vast sums from state funds drawn from general taxation, and given to it as reimbursements of election expenses, for purposes which have absolutely no connection with the normal activities of a political party. Whilst all the major Italian political parties have used these reimbursements for purposes other than those specified, it seems unlikely they have done so in so obvious a fashion as the Lega (although there is an ongoing scandal about the behaviour of the treasurer of the now defunct Christian Democratic fragment known as the Margherita, most of whose members subsequently joined the ex-‘official communist’-dominated Partito Democratico). In the case of the Lega, it is not just a matter of key officers using the money for the day-to-day administrative expenses of running a party rather than for the strictly electoral campaigning for which the reimbursements are officially intended. The Lega stands accused of attempting - successfully or otherwise - to take millions out of the country to destinations as unusual as Tanzania or Cyprus, speculating in foreign currencies like Australian dollars and Norwegian crowns and making large-scale purchases of gold and diamonds - activities which could not be construed as necessary to subsidise a low-circulation daily paper (La Padania) or a separate Padanian trade union (Sindacato Padano), widely believed to have fewer than 50 members.
The most serious allegations are that treasurer Francesco Belsito took from the Lega’s account €300,000 in gold bars and diamonds, Senate vice-president Rosy Mauro €100,000 in diamonds, and Piergiorgio Stiffoni - until last week one of a committee in charge of auditing the Lega’s accounts - a further €200,000 in diamonds. While Mauro has publicly denied all the allegations against her in the strongest possible terms, Belsito has announced he has handed back everything.
The initial response of the party to a longstanding criminal investigation was to force Francesco Belsito, the Lega treasurer, to resign on April 3. The investigation - largely reliant on the interception of numerous telephone calls between Belsito, entrepreneur Stefano Bonet and Romolo Girardelli (the latter suspected of association with the Mafia) - culminated in a dramatic police raid on the treasurer’s office and the confiscation of what appear to be incriminating documents, including the dossier published by Il Giornale, from his safe. Some information about the Tanzanian episode had already come into the public realm in January, but the Lega did not appear to have responded to this initial crisis in any effective and timely manner, and wire taps from the last few months published in many major newspapers showed that the three men - Belsito, Girardelli and Bonet - had fallen out as a result of the January leaks.
Presumably some of the money being laundered abroad was not from the Lega and may well have come from the proceeds of organised crime: some of the intercepted calls appeared to have rather threatening undertones (Belsito, before his elevation to the Lega treasurership and an undersecretary post in the final Berlusconi government, had started his working life as a nightclub bouncer, whilst Girardelli - known as ‘the Admiral’ in Calabrian Mafia circles - appeared to have rather more ferocious acquaintances). Although prominent figures in the Lega are still trying to maintain that the Lega’s founder, Umberto Bossi, and former interior minister Roberto Maroni were unaware of at least the more spectacular activities of the party’s treasurer, the attempt to blame everything on one rotten apple soon proved a miserable failure.
This was because, first, some of the conversations included references to money paid to Bossi’s wife and children for purposes that could not be given any political justification; and, secondly, because of the extensive statements given to the investigating magistrates by two figures in the Lega’s administrative apparatus: Daniela Cantamessa, the secretary in charge of organisation, sometimes referred to by journalists as Bossi’s personal secretary; and Nadia Dagrada, the secretary in charge of accounts. The willingness of these devoted party members, who had worked for the Lega all their adult lives, to talk to the authorities perhaps resulted from their desire to avoid possible incrimination or perhaps from some sense that Bossi’s family and entourage had betrayed the original ideals of the party. Whatever the case, it stood in stark contrast to the conduct of the rather more loyal, but less ideologically motivated, secretaries of figures like Silvio Berlusconi and Giulio Andreotti in the past. The traditional line in such situations was to take refuge in reticence, if not outright silence, as well as displays of feigned ignorance or deliberate misinformation.
All of this placed Bossi in an extremely difficult situation. He could not avoid acknowledging that he was responsible for the appointment of Belsito as treasurer. This was impossible to explain away, given Belsito’s egregious lack of any relevant qualifications in accountancy or administration, his Calabrian rather than Padanian origins and his extremely dodgy political and personal past. Moreover, the behaviour of Bossi’s son was impossible to defend. Renzo Bossi was generally known as ‘the Trout’ as a result of an interview given by his father some years ago. He was asked whether Renzo - who was being groomed for a political career - was his delfino (literally ‘dolphin’) and had replied he was more like a trota. ‘The Trout’, although elected as a Lega candidate to the Lombard Regional Council, had very little talent for politics, preferring to drive round in expensive fast cars and have brief relationships with showgirls - liaisons which tended to attract what his father felt was unwelcome publicity in Italian gossip magazines. Whether or not there was any truth in the story about his attendance at a cocaine-fired orgy held at the residence of the partner of one of his fellow Lega regional councillors, there seems to be absolutely no doubt that the numerous motoring fines he picked up for both speeding and parking violations were paid by Belsito from the Lega treasury.
Here we do not have to rely on the somewhat unreliable and often uncorroborated telephonic claims of Belsito, since one of Renzo’s bodyguards used his mobile phone to film Bossi junior receiving large sums of cash - video evidence to back up the authenticity of the receipts found in Belsito’s safe. Given the fact that from January onwards Belsito was clearly trying to put himself in a position to blackmail the Bossi family in the event of his own sacking, there might otherwise have been a suspicion of forgery. Moreover, ‘the Trout’, having failed his school-leaving exams on three successive occasions, appeared to have finally paid for a diploma at the age of 21 from some mysterious institution. And now it is revealed that the party paid more than €100,000 towards the fees for a degree in economics issued by some equally mysterious “private university in London”. Bossi, faced with scandals involving both the party treasurer and his favourite son, resigned as party leader (federal secretary in Lega parlance) on April 5. Over the Easter weekend Bossi finally forced a clearly reluctant Renzo to resign from the Lombard regional council and to abandon his political career, despite the desperate attempts of Renzo’s mother to persuade her husband that their son was being unfairly singled out.
Belsito and Renzo Bossi were not the only members of the ‘magic circle’ mentioned in the telephone intercepts, which received massive press coverage. Nor were they the principal targets of Daniela Cantamessa and Nadia Dagrada, the secretaries who had given their lives to the Lega and now felt betrayed. Bossi’s wife, Manuela, was widely blamed - not just by Cantamessa and Dagrada, but by many party members - for allegedly manipulating the ailing Bossi, who has never really recovered from his devastating stroke in February 2004, which has certainly very gravely impaired his once powerful oratorical capacity and may have affected his mental faculties.
Bossi’s wife certainly not only secured party funding for Renzo, and to a lesser extent her other sons (even the youngest boy’s nose operation was paid for in this way), but seems to have squandered a massive amount of party money - much of it ultimately derived from public funds paid for by southerners and northern non-believers in the myth of Padania - on a school specialising in providing a “traditional education” in the Lombard dialect. However, this ideological commitment to the more grotesque aspects of regionalism has not been enough to wipe out her own Sicilian descent, often referred to by Bossi himself when denying charges of racism, whilst her intense and longstanding interest in astrology and the occult has added to her vilification by the Lega’s Lombard hard core - according to the two vengeful secretaries, she spends most of her time in an attic with thousands of books about black magic spread all over the floor.
If this was not enough, a further target for all the pent-up racism and misogyny of the Lega’s base has been another member of the ‘magic circle’, Rosy Mauro, who, as well as being the deputy speaker of the Senate, is leader of the Sindacato Padano ‘trade union’ and a close friend of Manuela Bossi. Mauro has often accompanied the increasingly frail Bossi on his public engagements in the years since his stroke, becoming known as ‘La Badante’. She was not only born in Puglia, in the deep south of Italy - something which excited the racism of many Leghisti - but seems to have a much younger lover, Pier Moscagiuro, although she continues to deny that he is more than her chief bodyguard and secretary. This former policeman, whom the Lega’s secretaries labelled ‘the Gigolo’, also showed some musical inclinations as a singer-songwriter - his greatest hit being entitled ‘Kooly noody’ (a pun on culi nudi - bare bums), something which has understandably caused much merriment amongst the Lega’s enemies, as well as amongst the internal opponents of the magic circle, of whom Roberto Maroni, who was ultimately Rosy Mauro’s nemesis, is the most formidable representative.
It has been alleged that both Rosy Mauro and her bodyguard obtained school-leaving certificates and degrees from some mysterious Swiss institution (which, like Renzo Bossi’s “private university in London”, has never be named in print), at considerable expense to the party and ultimately the Italian taxpayer. Whilst Mauro herself denies having obtained such dubious Swiss qualifications, advancing as what she seems to think is a plea in mitigation that she was a “donkey” at school, it is quite possible that the aggressively anti-intellectual and thuggish stance of the Lega has paradoxically made its hierarchy particularly vulnerable to the lure of self-evidently phoney diplomas and degrees at a time when shrewder operators would have learnt from the LSE’s indulgence of Saif Gaddafi’s plagiarised PhD thesis, that apparently respectable institutions can sometimes be a better target.
Be that as it may, Rosy Mauro has proved a totally incompetent deputy speaker of the Senate, seemingly unable to keep order and to comprehend elementary rules of parliamentary procedure, so it is quite clear that she has been promoted way beyond anything her intellectual capacity fits her for. Nonetheless, the pompous attitude over the last week or so of her superior, Senate speaker Renato Schifani, a former justice minister under Berlusconi, who insists that she must now be prevented at all costs from chairing any sessions, lest she bring the Senate into disrepute, is a bit hard to take, given the Sicilian Schifani’s notoriety during his stint in the cabinet for his made-to-measure laws that kept Berlusconi out of the courtrooms. As yet Mauro’s legal position is no worse than that of Schifani (who has in the past, no doubt unfairly, been tarred with the Mafia brush), as no criminal charges have been brought against her.
Last week Bossi was reluctantly pushed by Roberto Maroni into expelling Mauro from the Lega - not because of her alleged corruption, but because of her refusal to obey the Lega’s orders to resign as deputy speaker and to stop making public appearances on prime-time television defending her position. Given that the Lega always presents such expulsions by its leading body as having been unanimous, it is hard to know whether the claim that Bossi deliberately absented himself from the room rather than vote against his Badante is true or not. Maroni certainly made it plain that if Bossi did not expel Mauro he would resign forthwith. Given Rosy’s self-destructive decision to appear at her expulsion hearing accompanied by her friend, the policeman and singer-songwriter, the old man had little choice, whatever he or Manuela might have felt.
Whilst some Italian feminists try to defend Rosy Mauro as a victim of machismo and many mainstream Italian journalists seem to have a degree of sympathy for Bossi in his decrepitude, anybody who starts feeling any pity for any of the characters in this melodrama - which seems more like a Dario Fo farce than a Shakespearean tragedy - should remember the terrible price paid for Bossi’s racist rantings by the thousands of black immigrants who have died either trying to reach Italian shores, being pushed back to sea or being callously and deliberately abandoned to sink beneath the waves in the overcrowded and badly maintained boats of the human traffickers without any serious attempt at rescue. Moreover, whilst neofascists have played their disgusting part, many of the numerous racist incidents of varying degrees of violence, from wounding and arson to cold-blooded murder, to which Africans, Arabs and gypsies have been subjected in Italy over the last two decades, must be laid fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Lega. The party has ceaselessly stirred up racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia - its campaigns against the building of mosques went beyond anything the English Defence League has ever accomplished - in the working class communities of northern Italy just as effectively as either Jean-Marie or Marine Le Pen have done amongst their French equivalents.
It is to be hoped that the Lega will not recover from this debacle, despite the efforts of Roberto Maroni to apply a new brush - quite literally, the 3,000 Leghisti summoned to a gathering at Bergamo a few days ago arrived carrying brushes in response to Maroni’s demand for “cleaning, cleaning, cleaning” in his Facebook posts in the days immediately preceding it. Interestingly, when Bossi spoke at the Bergamo rally and tried to revive the notion of a conspiracy against the Lega by its political and judicial opponents, he himself was heckled by the predominantly Maronite audience, who showed a much greater enthusiasm for their younger hero, who appears to be winning over the base of the party.
The next national (or, as the Lega puts it, ‘federal’) congress of the party will now take place in June, not the autumn, as was being suggested in the immediate aftermath of Bossi’s resignation - the democratic deficit inside the organisation should be evident from the fact that it is the first congress for a decade. Maroni is currently frontrunner for the succession - in the interim he is one of a “triumvirate” (along with Roberto Calderoli and Manuela Dal Lago) put in charge of the party in the immediate aftermath of Bossi’s resignation. Calderoli, another minister in Berlusconi’s last government, himself seems vulnerable to corruption allegations, if the claims in the intercepts from Belsito and his associates are to be believed - although as yet there is no corroborating evidence, whether written or in the form of sworn testimony, from other relevant witnesses.
Whether or not Manuela Dal Lago is the token woman, she is certainly the token representative of the Veneto (the other two better known figures both being Lombards). There is growing dissension between the Lombards and the Venetians, the latter believing that the party has been disgraced by a Lombard clique, whilst their own regional and local councillors are allegedly a model of rectitude. It needs to be emphasised that the current constitution of the Lega says quite clearly that the federal secretary and the president cannot be from the same “nation” (ie, region). Since Bossi became president after his resignation as federal secretary and both he and Maroni are Lombards, this would mean that Maroni could not become federal secretary if Bossi remains president, unless the leadership manage to show sufficient unity to impose a rapid rule change on the base. As things stand, a breach of the rules could trigger a Venetian scission from the Lega - the Liga Veneta was founded before the Lega Lombarda and more Venetians than Lombards fell victim to the purges by which Bossi imposed his control over the unified Lega Nord in its early years.
Local antagonisms do not just take a regional form. There are further rivalries between Bergamo and Varese within Lombardy and between both these provincial towns and the metropolis of Milan, whilst the Venetians are divided between the ex-Christian Democrat, Luca Zaia, and Franco Tosi, the ex-fascist mayor of Verona.
Whilst Maroni’s line of purging the party of the most discredited elements by expulsion may have some chance of success, it depends both on the successful marginalisation of the ‘magic circle’, which Bossi might not countenance if the allegations about his wife’s extensive property portfolio prove well founded,[12 ]and on no conclusive proof of Maroni’s own involvement in illicit financial transactions emerging. The banner headline on the front page of the April 12 Il Fatto Quotidiano - in broad terms a daily associated with Antonio Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori - read: “Maroni sapeva” (Maroni knew). This allegation is based on intercepts of statements by Belsito and Girardelli and does not augur well for Maroni. Some have already compared him to Claudio Martelli, the ‘fresh, young man’ who attempted to present himself as an honest alternative to Bettino Craxi in the dying days of the PSI - only to be unmasked as equally mired in corruption a few months later.
If no further revelations emerge over the next few weeks, the local elections in May will be decisive for the fate of the Lega. Any hope it had that its line of opposition to the government of Mario Monti would enable it to increase its vote at the expense of Berlusconi’s PdL, which has in general supported Monti, albeit less enthusiastically than the PD, has clearly gone as a result of the scandals. It is now crucial for the Lega that its share of the vote does not decrease too rapidly and that it manages to hold on to some of its strongholds in local government - such as Verona, where Tosi was at one stage thought likely to win the mayoralty for a second time outright in the first round.
Whilst some disillusioned Lega voters will return to the major parties - the PdL and PD - many are likely to abstain. The one force that is forecast to pick up a disproportionate percentage of former Lega voters is the comedian Beppe Grillo’s populist Movimento Cinque Stelle. At times this grouping has sought to place itself on the far left, appealing to some of those who once voted for Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), but its rightward trajectory has become quite clear in recent days. Grillo made a disgraceful statement that the children of immigrants should not be granted Italian citizenship and cynically uses his histrionic talents in speeches employing many of the phrases and mannerisms of the younger, fitter Bossi in a very blatant bid to appeal to Lega supporters through demagogy and racism.
We should all rejoice at the downfall of Bossi and the Lega, but until such time as the PRC or some other communist formation revives, the danger persists of the mere replacement of one reactionary racist demagogue by another.
1. There is a large English-language academic literature dealing with the history, ideology and sociology of this party. The foremost scholar of the Lega in the UK is Anna Cento Bull, author of Social identities and political cultures in Italy (Oxford 2001) and co-author with Mark Gilbert of The Lega Nord and the northern question in Italian politics (Basingstoke 2002). The American scholar, Thomas W Gold, has written The Lega Nord and contemporary politics in Italy (Basingstoke 2003), whilst recently Andrej Zaslove has published The reinvention of the European radical right: populism, regionalism and the Italian Lega Nord (Montreal 2011) - a title that stresses the malevolent European impact of the Lega.
2. Whilst some have argued that the PSI started to be infected with such practices after it entered a coalition government with the DC and then its left wing split away in 1964, the rot only really became apparent when Craxi took over the party secretaryship in 1976.
3. The territory of Padania is in effect a creation of the Lega Nord. It has no previous uniform historical or cultural identity and its exact southern boundaries have varied with the electoral fortunes of the Lega - Emilia Romagna and Tuscany have been included on some occasions, but not others. This is not to deny that to a limited extent the Lega Nord’s predecessors, the Lega Lombarda and the Liga Veneto, were tapping into genuine regionalist feelings in parts of Lombardy and the Veneto, but merely to emphasise that Padania itself cannot be treated as an entity comparable to Catalonia within the Spanish state or Wales and Scotland within the UK.
4. On the first occasion such an alliance was forged, in 1994, it disintegrated in a matter of months, with the Lega bringing down Silvio Berlusconi’s first government, even if the importance of trade union strikes and demonstrations over pensions in this process should not be underrated. Between 1994 and 1999, Bossi and Berlusconi were on very bad terms and it should be noted that it was the Lega’s refusal to ally with Berlusconi in 1996 that allowed Romano Prodi to gain sufficient seats to form a centre-left government.
5. The Italian parliament came up with this notion of reimbursement of election expenses some years ago to get around the fact that state funding of political parties had been abolished by an abrogative referendum. In effect, there was always an element of fraud in this defiance of the spirit, if not the letter, of the popular will, but not of the grotesque kind being discussed here.
6. The allegations are that treasurer Francesco Belsito took from the Lega’s account €300,000 in gold bars and diamonds, Senate vice-president Rosy Mauro €100,000 in diamonds and Piergiorgio Stiffoni - until last week one of a committee in charge of auditing the Lega’s accounts - a further €200,000 in diamonds. While Mauro has publicly denied all the allegations against her in the strongest possible terms, Belsito has announced he has handed back everything.
7. One assumes that if this had been the New College of the Humanities set up by Richard Dawkins and other celebrity academics, somebody would by now have brought it to the attention of the press, so presumably Renzo was the willing victim of a more straightforward scam.
8. ‘Badante’, whilst not appearing in older dictionaries, is clearly derived from badare - to ‘care for’ or ‘look after’. In recent years it has become the usual description for women, usually of eastern European origin, who look after elderly Italian men and sometimes women. This is a new phenomenon and ties in with the breakdown of the old extended family, since the role of carer would in the past have been performed by daughters, particularly unmarried ones. The notion of the badante as manipulating an elderly man has been reinforced by the number of marriages of young eastern European women to elderly Italian widowers in their charge.
9. As far as I am aware, no Italian journalist has yet compared Bossi with King Lear or drawn analogies between Manuela Bossi or Rosy Mauro and either Lady Macbeth or the witches in the Scottish play, although feminist defences of Mauro have claimed she is being treated like a witch destined for the flames.
10. Whilst one might expect the Lega to have a rather poor grasp of Latin, given that many of its members do not seem capable of speaking in standard Italian, let alone achieving fairly average educational qualifications, mainstream Italian journalists have also used the term, despite one of the three being a woman.
11. See La Repubblica April 12 for further details of internal divisions, both territorial and political, within the Lega Nord.
12. There are allegedly 11 properties registered in the name of Bossi’s wife which might have been purchased with party funds. There has also been a scandal about a large apartment left to Bossi as leader of the Lega in the will of an elderly female Leghista without children. The flat seems to have been sold, but there is no indication that Bossi has given the money to the party, as the testator intended. In addition the intercepts of Belsito and his associates contained allegations that numerous expensive repairs on the Bossi family house were financed from party funds.
13. Ilvo Diamanti argues in La Repubblica that the Lega’s decline will not be so rapid, citing an opinion poll giving it 7% support - a drop of only 1% in a week of unrelentingly bad publicity (April 16). He emphasises the Lega’s territorial roots, large and active membership and possession of a core vote of about 4%, who have stuck with it over all the vicissitudes of the last 20 years. Diamanti is professor of political science at Urbino University and has written two books on the Lega and, whilst many a political scientist has been proved wrong, it has to be conceded that Diamanti’s knowledge of the Lega is second to none.
14. It is no accident that the most prominent of those in the PD who have shown some measure of sympathy for Bossi and the Lega in recent days have been the totally corrupt PD clique in charge of Sesto San Giovanni, the industrial suburb of Milan once known as the ‘Stalingrad of Italy’. Inevitably such mayors and former mayors who have not resigned from their own offices faced with criminal investigations encourage the Leghisti to do likewise. However, it is hard to believe that former Leghisti will turn to Penati and his coterie - the spurious reputation for rectitude of the Lega is one reason why former communist-voting workers switched to Bossi’s followers in areas like Sesto.