Italy, not Padania, lives Secession drive: National failure would threaten a Yugoslavia-style breakup.

September 18, 1996

COMIC OPERA is an Italian art form and so Italian TTC commentators were quick to brand the "federal republic of Padania," as one. But there is nothing funny about the threat of Umberto Bossi, who proclaimed the independence of northern Italy as "Padania" before some 10,000 supporters in Venice, vowing to put an armed national guard in the field to defend that independence.

Mr. Bossi is bombastic but no joke. His party helped form the coalition that put the tycoon Sylvio Berlusconi in power and then brought him down. In last April's election, Mr. Bossi's Northern League won 10 percent of the national vote, as high as 40 percent in some districts. The conventional thinking is that virtually all northern Italians do not want secession but do want more regional autonomy.

So Mr. Bossi is in opposition to the center-left government of Romano Prodi but is regarded as the leader of a protest, not of a nation. Mr. Bossi thinks it too late for reform. He denounces plans for more regional autonomy being prepared by Mr. Prodi.

The parallels are clear to the way Scottish nationalism plays out in Britain or Basque nationalism in Spain or Quebec nationalism in Canada. Autonomy is advertised as the antidote to secession. But equally relevant are the atrocities and economic despair of "independent" regions that attended the breakup of Yugoslavia. Italians don't want that.

The challenge to Mr. Prodi is to press ahead with reforms aiming at more regional autonomy and, even more important, at cleaning up national institutions. Just when Italians were hoping for an end to political corruption scandals, which destroyed the two traditional ruling political parties, yet another one is unfolding over an investigation of bribery in contracts for a high speed rail grid.

Italians need to be convinced that Italy works, before the specter of breaking it up can be fully exorcised.

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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