Tue, Dec 30, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Extremist Northern League threatens to spoil PM's party

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ROME

At vitriolic political rallies on the grassy fields of northern Italy, speakers with green handkerchiefs knotted around their necks rant against Rome and the evils of immigration. Senators wearing green ties in the slightly tamer halls of parliament threaten to bring down the government.

Green neckwear and incendiary speech are what distinguish the Northern League, the most ideologically extreme party in Italy's center-right governing coalition and an albatross around the neck of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

"It weighs a lot on him," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor of political science at the University of Florence.

"And it's a delicate moment for the coalition," he said.

Umberto Bossi, the firebrand leader of the party who calls immigrants "bingo bongos" and regularly threatens to leave the government, has not made matters easy for the prime minister.

But political analysts say Berlusconi tolerates the Northern League, which brought down his first government nearly a decade ago, because he needs its small northern power base to win elections. Berlusconi has said that he wants to be prime minister for another decade.

The Northern League's apparent hold on Berlusconi has prompted accusations within the coalition that it wields disproportionate political weight. In a country where divided coalitions rarely stand, such yawning fault lines require constant mending.

"The trick for Berlusconi is pleasing the other coalition partners without displeasing Bossi," D'Alimonte said.

The grievance that Berlusconi lavishes too much attention on Bossi picked up momentum during the summer after the Northern League's poor showings in local elections. The bickering may finally come to a boil next month, when, many analysts say, Berlusconi is likely to make changes in his government.

"The government can be improved, and we are open to collaboration from everyone," Berlusconi said at his year-end news conference, though he denied that the major players would change.

Some think he may be forced to sacrifice Giulio Tremonti, the finance minister from his own party, because he is seen by other coalition members as too close to Bossi. Bossi, the minister for reforms, has threatened to leave the government.

Last month, Bossi told his supporters that if the government did not carry out a decentralization plan to empower regional governments, his party's "interests will lie in shutting down this legislature as quickly as possible."

Berlusconi's first government fell in 1994, when the Northern League withdrew its support after seven months. This time, Berlusconi has a significant majority in both houses of parliament, where the Northern League has helped him pass legislation that critics say benefit him personally.

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