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Profile : Fighting the Center: A Rebel in Italy : Umberto Bossi is seeking nothing less than the radical restructuring of the country into a Swiss-style federal republic.

April 02, 1991|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — In the multihued and endlessly convoluted universe of Italian politics, it is Umberto Bossi's self-assigned role to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes. Controversy naturally follows: Bossi is hailed as a visionary, and he is denounced as a demagogue.

Political rebellion is brewing in the rich and sophisticated Italian north, and Bossi is at its core. His enemies are the center, where he laments inept and corrupt Roman bureaucrats dawdling with Third World lethargy, and the south, where, he says, northern riches are squandered for political and criminal advantage.

The tousle-haired Bossi, a 49-year-old medical-school-dropout-turned-senator, is leader of the Northern League, a new political movement that alarms Establishment parties by demanding a dramatic restructuring in the way the nation has been administered since its disparate regions united as modern Italy in 1861.

Bossi wants to scrap the current Rome-based unitary Italian state and replace it with a Swiss-style federal republic of three autonomous regions--north, center and south. Mainstream parties, and most of the Italian press, denounce the idea as destructive, elitist--and racist.

"What exists now is a monarchy of money in the interests of the few. We must change the form of the state, replace it with a federal system where people are closer to their government and have a greater chance to influence it," Bossi said in an interview.

The Northern League, or Lega Nord, is a federation of five regional movements with Bossi's Lombard League, which won an impressive 19% of the votes in the last local elections. Together, the six members of Lega Nord polled 4.8% nationally, making it overnight the fourth largest party in Italy.

The Northern League's anti-centralist, anti-immigration crusade exploits wounds of politics, economics and race in a nation that has become rich and modern since World War II without settling profound regional resentments and inequalities.

"The north is the breadbasket, producing nearly two-thirds of national income. The center takes our money and sends it south, where people get three times as much money from the government as they produce," said Enza Bello, the league's economic counselor. "Fifty years is enough. It can't go on like this; the south must walk with the same legs as the rest of us."

Lombardy, with bejeweled Milan as its vortex, is the richest part of Italy--and one of the richest regions in Europe. Per capita income at the heart of league ferment approaches U.S. levels and is about twice that of Sicily. Only about two-thirds of the taxes that Lombardy and prosperous regional neighbors like Piedmont (Turin) and the Veneto (Venice) pay to the central government are returned in services.

The Italian center, dominated by Rome, is headquarters of a government dominated by the same verbose political parties for nearly half a century and a public administration universally deplored by Italians.

"Roma, ladrona, La Lega non perdona," chant league faithful at their northern rallies. "Thieving Rome, the league does not forgive."

Not all Milanese businessmen agree that "Africa begins in Rome"--as some insist--but many courier their mail to Switzerland rather than trust it to the molasses mercies of the Italian post office.

The south is what makes people like Bossi so fed up with the current system. Decade after decade, billions of dollars in national development funds have vanished into the region with little to show for them beyond a highly developed system of political patronage, called clientelismo, and ever-greater predations by ever-richer Mafias.

"Lombardy and the Veneto are closer to Middle Europe than to Rome. The south looks like North Africa," said Bossi, the league's only national senator.

League goals are criticized for their imprecision, but the intense, bespectacled Bossi speaks with a lover's zeal of an eventual Italian federation in which regions would collect their own taxes, administer their own funds and make their own laws the way American states do, reserving wider roles like currency, foreign affairs and defense to the central government.

"The new Europe must give voice to its regions," said Bossi, who describes his league as centrist and devoted to free-market economics.

If his complaints against Rome appeal to the millions of Italians jaundiced with their government, so does his regionalism, which implicitly endorses the contempt in which many northerners hold southerners.

Amid headlong industrialization since World War II, millions of southerners fled hardscrabble rural life for factory jobs in the north. Many have climbed the economic ladder, becoming teachers, police officers, government workers and managers. But they are still outsiders to northerners who know them collectively as terroni --clodhoppers--and resent intrusion of southern culture as well as northern branches of southern criminal clans.

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