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Libya: Berlusconi’s home front

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Foreign Minister Gianfranco Frattini’s call for a ceasefire in Libya was presented as being motivated by humanitarian reasons. Yet in reality it stemmed from pressure from the Northern League, Berlusconi’s most important coalition partner; and its concerns are certainly not humanitarian. The Northern League’s objection to the campaign was far more about money than anything else. Umberto Bossi, the party’s leader, thundered to journalists, “When the money runs out the war stops.”

The Northern League is constantly complaining about financial matters. Seen outside Italy as largely an anti-immigration party, it is arguably far more motivated by a desire to keep in the North money earned in the North. Bossi is insisting on tax cuts at a time when the financial crisis is just starting to bite at the heels of Italian banks (sixteen of which were warned by Moody’s last week that they were at risk of a ratings downgrade). This makes it hard to take seriously its recent demands for some Italian ministries to be based in the North. The costs of transferring entire government departments don’t seem to concern him as much as the costs of the war in Libya. The fact that he is insisting on tax cuts at the same time makes him seem entirely incoherent, and the ministries issue merely an attention-seeking gimmick designed to sate the more unsophisticated of his supporters.

The party’s contradictory antics are causing serious problems for Silvio Berlusconi as he struggles to govern the country from within an uneasy coalition. Their votes were necessary for the Prime Minister to win a vote of confidence called after the government lost a referendum on three of its policies. Officially the Northern League made no specific recommendation to its voters as to where to place their ballot, although one of its most senior members, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, declared he voted against the government’s wishes.

Frattini later declared to the press that his call for a ceasefire in Libya was, “only a working hypothesis”, and did not represent the position of the Italian government. In reality, the ceasefire request, which caused a great commotion in the capitals of the other nations involved in the action, was merely designed to placate the Northern League and the insertion of the humanitarian concerns surely just an opportunistic tactic to make the appeal more respectable to the so-called international community.

The Northern League was never keen on the conflict. From the start they insisted, along with the opposition, that the UN resolution was obeyed to the letter in order to avoid potential negative consequences for Italy, which, as a major destination for North African refugees and as a country with strong diplomatic links to Libya (Berlusconi had done much to cultivate a relationship with Gaddafi), could suffer much if an angered Gaddafi managed to cling onto power, or if the regime that replaced him was even worse. Nevertheless they voted through support for the UN action, only to now have second thoughts while the campaign is still on-going.

As well as the financial issue they are concerned about the flood of refugees. Roberto Maroni has spoken along these lines: the party is concerned to find a solution to the situation which stems the flow of refugees. According to Maroni this means finding a way to install a government, “as soon as possible.” He didn’t specify what sort of government, leaving open the suspicion that he wouldn’t object to the return of the dictator, as long as Libyans stopped washing up on Italian shores.

Maroni’s independent line is widely believed to signal his ambitions to succeed Bossi as leader. Bossi has, despite his demands of the government, insisted he will support Berlusconi for the next two years out of fear of letting in the left. Yet at the pratone, the annual gathering of Northern League supporters in Pontida, a banner was unveiled declaring ‘Maroni for Prime Minister’. The suspicion remains that Maroni is manoeuvring to take over not only from Bossi, but from Berlusconi, which would mean the fall of the government. Rather than focussing on tackling the dire economic situation that besets Italy, Berlusconi is not only constrained to watch his back, but even to watch the back of the man at his back.

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