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Italian Party Stages Vote of Its Own for Secession

Politics: Northern League says 3 million weigh in on autonomy plan. It is another swipe at central authority.


TREVISO, Italy — Led by small-scale, high-tech exporters, this graceful town of busy bike lanes and shaded canals has prospered over the past decade as part of Italy's most dynamic region. But on Sunday, many of its smartly dressed citizens joined an uprising against the government in Rome.

Italy, said Luciano Sorrenti, who runs the big newsstand in Treviso's medieval piazza, is a "police state" that "suffocates us with a madhouse of bureaucracy and taxes." Not long ago, he said, he was fined $160, about a week's profit, because a sign on his kiosk was 4 inches longer than the federal limit.

Sorrenti fought back Sunday by joining hundreds of thousands of people across northern Italy who voted in an unofficial referendum to make everything from Florence to the Alps "an independent and sovereign region" known as Padania.

"Call me a revolutionary," said the 54-year-old vendor, "but the only way to get a message to the crooks in Rome is to declare 'We want out!' and hope they give us a bit of autonomy."

The vote was the latest assault on central authority by Italy's Northern League and its flamboyant leader, Umberto Bossi, whose appeals for local self-determination have escalated over the past year to demands for secession--and appear to have inspired a recent armed takeover of Venice's famed bell tower.

League activists organized the vote and counted the ballots at 13,000 white tents set up in piazzas and along roadsides. Their claim to have attracted more than 3 million out of the 22 million eligible voters in the north was impossible to verify, but balloting here in the Veneto region was brisk, with several tents counting more than 100 ballots each by midday.

Bossi's diatribes, which claim that northerners' taxes vanish into a black hole of Roman corruption, have made his party of green-shirted activists a force in Italian politics. The league received 10% of last year's nationwide parliamentary vote.

Because Bossi doesn't enjoy a majority even on his home turf, the political establishment has taken his secessionist appeals at less than face value. But the mood in Rome changed May 9.

In the predawn hours that day, eight men hijacked a ferry in Venice and used it to transport a homemade armored vehicle down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's Square and then scaled the bell tower, where they unfurled a flag of the old Republic of Venice.

The seven-hour occupation ended without a shot when police scaled the tower and seized the separatists, who went on trial last week for hijacking, possession of an automatic rifle, occupation of a public place and armed threats.

Wary of Italy's recent history of terrorist bloodshed, both Bossi and Italy's center-left government have been surprised by an outpouring of sympathy for the "St. Mark's 8" at rallies across the north. After claiming that the invaders were government agents out to discredit his movement, Bossi altered his speeches and began calling them "misguided patriots."

Most people interviewed after voting Sunday in half a dozen towns inland from Venice said they respected the men's courage and saw nothing more threatening about their loaded weapon than about those carried by federal tax police who pester shopkeepers.

But voters were quick to assert that their movement is peaceful and not really aimed at breaking Italy in two.

"People talk about separatism, but what we really want is federalism, like they have in Germany and Switzerland, where local governments have real power," said Silvestre Valentino, 50, a roofing company owner who worked 25 years in those countries before returning to the town of Castelfranco Veneto. "We're decades behind our neighbors."

Militancy against Rome has risen in the past year as the Veneto region's export boom has leveled off. Business leaders have begun demanding, without success, that the central government build new roads and other infrastructure to sustain their competitive edge.

Also, voters are frustrated that mayors elected in recent years with Northern League support have proved powerless under central government mandates.

"It's unbelievable how limited we are," said Alfredo Pasini, the 43-year-old reformist mayor of Pordenone, who wants to impose fines on drivers of defective, smoke-belching cars and drop the tax on umbrellas at outdoor cafes. "If I try to do this without [Rome's] approval, I could be prosecuted."

Political leaders in the north are encouraged by a proposal on regional autonomy offered by the government last week to a multi-party commission debating the first serious reform of the Italian state in 50 years. But the proposal faces opposition from centralists and from Bossi, who wants to use Sunday's vote to demand a more radical form of federalism.

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