Connect to share and comment

Meet Italy's second most important politician

Northern League founder Umberto Bossi has amassed political power to rival his ally Berlusconi.

Umberto Bossi Silvio Berlusconi
Italy's Prime Minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi talks with Northern League party leader and key ally Umberto Bossi (left) during a news conference at his private residence in Rome on April 16, 2008. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

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.