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Berlusconi win in Italy boosts right-wing ally PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 16 April 2008

AFP, ROME - Silvio Berlusconi's victory in Italy's elections marked a breakthrough for his Northern League ally, prompting fears Tuesday that the small anti-immigration party will unduly influence his agenda.

The populist regional party nearly doubled its strength in parliament, from 4.5 percent two years ago to 8.3 percent of the national vote this time around, and more than 25 percent in its northern Veneto and Lombardy bastions.

"Everything can change now," party leader Umberto Bossi crowed in an interview with the daily La Stampa. "We're stronger than ever." Soon after the election result became clear on Monday, Bossi, 66, had pledged that his eurosceptic party would never hold Berlusconi or his People of Freedom (PDL) party "hostage" over policy.

Bossi had brought down Berlusconi's first government in 1994 when he withdrew his support after only a few months. Political analyst Marc Lazar was wary of Bossi's promise to play ball this time around. Bossi's party "will certainly demand important posts and ministries, and push three subjects -- federalism, immigration and European issues," Lazar told AFP.

Bossi's sometimes colorful rhetoric caused a stir last week when, ostensibly lending support to Berlusconi over fears of electoral fraud, he said: "If necessary, we will take guns against the centralising Roman riff-raff who are deliberately preventing the vote."

In his interview on Tuesday, Bossi pledged that "tax federalism" -- by which regions will not share tax revenues, never mind the chronic wealth gap between north and south -- would be the Northern League's "first initiative." Bossi, who was reforms minister in the 1994 government, added: "It's unthinkable that all the money (raised from taxes in the north) keeps landing in Rome."

More sensitive is the Northern League's anti-immigration agenda and the xenophobic remarks and actions of some of its lawmakers. In November, a former deputy education minister upset Muslims by leading a pig to the site of a future mosque in northern Padua.

Both at home and abroad on Tuesday, expectations for Berlusconi's third stint at prime minister were muted. The Berlusconi camp should be aware that "not only the electorate but the international community is watching ... with a mixture of scepticism, alarm and expectation," analyst Massimo Franco wrote in Corriere della Sera, adding: "Up to now, the first two have prevailed."

Scepticism in Europe over a new Berlusconi government was summed up by the Financial Times' German edition, which described the media baron as a "grandstanding egomaniac" under the headline "Tragedy Act Three." The French press, while doubtful of Berlusconi's ability to implement change, welcomed the return of genuinely bipartisan politics to Rome. The elections cleansed the Italian parliament of its many smaller groupings, leaving only five parties behind, including the two big formations created last year by Berlusconi and his vanquished rival Walter Veltroni.

More than eight in 10 voters backed one or the other of the two biggest blocs, Berlusconi's PDL and Veltroni's Democratic Party (PD). With words like "earthquake" and "tsunami," commentators ticked off the list of familiar figures who will be absent from the incoming parliament, notably outgoing lower house speaker Fausto Bertinotti, the communist leader who resigned on Monday after a dismal showing by the far left.

La Stampa credited the new-look parliament "exclusively to Walter Veltroni and his decision to break up the centre-left coalition and run alone (or almost)." Veltroni excluded the far left when he formed the American-style PD last year, leading Berlusconi to set up an opposing centre-right bloc by merging his Forza Italia and the conservative National Alliance.

Other casualties included Italian Communist Party leader Oliviero Diliberto and Green chief Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, who was outgoing Prime Minister Romano Prodi's environment minister.

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