Meet Italy's second most important politician

ROME, Italy — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his key ally, Northern League founder Umberto Bossi, share similar biographies. Both ascended from humble origins to control media outlets and political empires. But there is a fundamental difference: Bossi, unlike Berlusconi, never amassed a fortune and, even after nearly 20 years at the top of Italian politics, still lives in his old house in Gemonio, half an hour from Milan.

This, in a country where politicians scramble for fancy government-subsidized apartments in historic Roman buildings, is something much remarked upon.

Bossi's political clout has grown even stronger after regional elections this spring. His party registered phenomenal growth, even outside its traditional stronghold in Italy's wealthy northern regions, and overtook Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party in key areas. His populist, anti-immigration agenda proved popular among an Italian electorate scared by the economic crisis and growing unemployment.

Analyst Luca Telese — who writes for Italy's left-leaning daily Il Fatto — said Bossi now has a “golden share” in Berlusconi's government. The prime minister now desperately needs his votes to stay in power and thus continue avoiding prosecution from Italy's judiciary. Bossi has helped him so far, but also recently moved against a law aimed at controlling wiretaps that Berlusconi is keen to see approved.

The 68-year-old Bossi's rise is surpising, and not only because he leads a regional party that has established itself as a national player. In 2004, he suffered a debilitating stroke that kept him out of politics for a year and a half. Many predicted his political career was over, and that the Northern League was doomed without its charismatic founder. But Bossi, slurred speech be darned, went on to reap success after success.

Unemployed and without a real vocation until his late 30s, Bossi's life changed in 1979 when he met Bruno Salvadori, a local politician from the French-speaking Italian region of Valle d'Aosta, who argued that peoples who don't have a State — even in rich, First World countries — had the right to secede and determine their own fate.

He argued for increased federalism — or fiscal and administrative autonomy for local areas — something that was anathema in a country like Italy that had struggled for centuries to achieve unity.

After Salvadori's death in car crash in 1981, Bossi, who was then a medical student, vowed to continue his mentor's mission. With his lifetime friend Roberto Maroni — now Italy's interior secretary — and few others, Bossi founded the Northern League in 1984.

Their breakthrough didn’t come until 1992, when the League elected 80 members of parliament. Even so, many analysts attributed that success to protest votes, given a series of corruption scandals involving Italy's dominant parties. But Bossi has not left national prominence since.

His slogans can be crude, such as when he likened northern Italians to Native Americans, urging them to fight immigration so they wouldn’t end up conquered by foreigners. And his political stances are often controversial, such as when he hinted that Italy should abandon the euro and put up barriers to Chinese imports to boost domestic production. But Bossi has consistently negotiated Italian politics with rarely matched savvy.

He “is a true political animal,” said his biographer David Parenzo, who also has a “driving idea behind him.”

“He understood earlier than many that with the end of the Cold War and the birth of a supranational entity like the European Union, local identities would play a key role,” Parenzo said. “Thanks to his gift for organization, the Northern League is now the only party with strong roots at the local level, unlike Berlusconi's party, which is mostly … driven by its leader's charisma and little else.”

In fact, Bossi's relationship with Berlusconi has always been complex. He struck a shaky alliance with the controversial media tycoon in 1994, helping him getting into power for the first time. But that government lasted only seven months and it was Bossi — sensing the growing unease of his base at Berlusconi's shady past and alleged links to the mafia — who prompted its fall. In subsequent years, the Northern League’s newspaper La Padania, edited by Bossi himself at times, often attacked Berlusconi.

A lot has changed since then. Bossi now presents himself as Berlusconi's staunchest ally. Given the Northern League’s control of Italy's richest, most developed areas, Bossi knows that when Berlusconi, now 74, retires his party will play a key role in determining succession. After his victories in this spring’s election, journalists asked whether the next round in 2013 would results in a Northern League prime minister.

“We'll see, we've already demonstrated that everything's possible,” replied the man from Gemonio.