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