The transformation of the Northern League from Umberto Bossi’s federalist party to Matteo Salvini’s Italianist one, tells us an important story about charismatic leaders and their supporters.
The founder of the League, Umberto Bossi was a god-like figure for many party members. He was the embodiment of the party itself: he is the one who brought the fractured small regional movements together in 1989, and invented all the ideas that made it a party.
This role of Bossi’s, together with the fractured nature of the party, made an challenge from inside almost impossible. Bossi was the only Lombard that Venetians could tolerate as a party leader. Moreover, the party organization was autocratic, in their own words: Leninist. Therefore, there was no room for critique, let alone internal opposition, for the fear of expulsion. Indeed, when Bossi was replaced—even today—no one would dare to challenge him directly. Challengers have had to invent a strawman, a real or imagined enemy called Magic Circle: a group that surrounded Bossi and manipulated his power such that things would happen sua insaputa (without his knowledge).
A turning point for the party came in 2011, for Italy and the Northern League. The country went into a major economic crisis, and the government—run by the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia—stepped down amid pressure from Brussels. Then, a technocratic government put austerity measures in place. The support for the League saw a historical low of 3 percent.
Although Bossi did not allow any alternative to himself to flourish within the party, the youth organization Giovani Padani (Young Padanians) managed to become a powerhouse thanks to the nature of its activities. The youth organization is the party’s primary organ for recruiting loyal members who then take part in street-level, face-to-face propaganda. They constitute the main source of human-power in party activities and meetings, opening street stands, talking with people about party ideas, preparing and distributing political hand-outs, painting walls with party messages, constituting the loudest group in political meetings.
The youth branch’s activities also elicit nostalgia for the 1980s and ʼ90s leghisti (Northern League) activists who were known for espousing federalist and secessionist ideals. For this reason, the Young Padanians’s activities represent authenticity and a devotion to party ideas. Therefore, older members of the party cannot write off the youth as unimportant. Indeed, Roberto Maroni, the leader of the opposition within the party, had only this nostalgia to use as leverage and repeated the story of how he and Bossi spilled a bucket of paint in his car while they were painting walls during the good old days.
The youth organization has a self-regulating structure. Although the Northern League defined and structured itself as a federation of loosely connected regional movements in the North, the Young Padanians organization has a more or less central leadership that crosscuts regional identities. This alone is an accomplishment, one that has helped the party’s longevity, which spans over three decades although many academic accounts have described the Northern League as a temporary, reactionary party.
By 2011, Roberto Maroni, one of the founders of the party and friend of the founder-leader Bossi had become bold enough to criticize party policies and some close circles of the leader. His supporters crosscut all regions of the party; they called themselves Barbari Sognanti—dreaming barbarians—a claim that northern Italians were of the Celtic “race.” The Barbari Sognanti were a coalition of different political leanings, most of which were not supportive of Maroni but nonetheless countered Umberto Bossi. Maroni eventually would become a mere spearhead, knowingly or not.
Being a coalition that was loosely connected to their supposed leader, the Barbari Sognanti would not have been able to organize itself without relying on the backbone of the cross-regionally organized youth organization. It is safe to argue that Barbari Sognanti consisted of the youth organization, and whoever it was able to mobilize.
Bossi saw the Barbari Sognanti tide and banned Maroni from giving public speeches in January 2012. However, thanks to the support of the youth movement, Maroni was too big of a fish even for Bossi, who had already been enervated by his health condition and poor electoral support. The Varese section of the party—in fact, the youth organization—organized an event inviting Maroni to talk, which later became the famous “Maroni Night.” This was the first time Roberto Maroni was bold enough to challenge the leader. Anxiety was the only emotion visible in the historical center of Varese section, visible in the faces, and trembling hands of the party members who were smoking in their well-known balcony. Bossi was still a god-like figure: he had the power to expel all of them with a single signature. The Varese section was full of journalists who were pushing party members to say something against Bossi. However, the head of the Varese section—a prominent youth organization member—was still framing the event not as a challenge to Bossi, but as a sign of respect for Maroni.
The Apollo theater of Varese was full of people who were grouped to represent different regions of the north, giving the impression that this event was not only Varese’s but also was supported by the “base.” To everyone’s surprise, when the lights were dimmed for Maroni’s entrance, he walked onto the stage hand-in-hand with Bossi.
With this move, Bossi saved the party from fragmentation but legitimized and emboldened the party’s internal opposition. The struggle for power continued albeit less visibly, at least until an unexpected leak about an investigation into the misuse of party funds by Bossi and his family members. Many leghisti saw no problem in Bossi’s using party funds for himself, as he was the party. Had his demise not been already prepared by internal opposition, a corruption allegation—so unimportant by the Italian standards—would not have been enough to take him down.
The opposition was now strong enough to act, and organized events to “clean” the party with brooms, and Maroni kissing Bossi on the cheek, invoking the allegations of “the kiss of Judas.” Quickly, Bossi stepped down, leaving the leadership to Maroni temporarily.
The transformation of the league was not a power struggle of two charismatic leaders. Rather it was a grassroots reaction to the leader’s policies and attitudes. Eventually, it not only resulted in a youth organization member, Matteo Salvini, to become the new leader, but also revolutionized the ideological position of the party, and thereby showed us that the relationship between the leaders and their supporters is not a one-way street; rather, it is a mutually constructive one.