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Alpine village sets pace in Italy separatist upset
April 19, 2008 / 1:49 AM / 10 years ago

Alpine village sets pace in Italy separatist upset

CRESPADORO, Italy (Reuters) - Anger over Rome’s taxes and fears about the impact of immigration are at the heart of why this Italian village has become an unlikely pace-setter in the electoral upset by the separatist Northern League.

Crespadoro, set among the tranquil Alpine foothills, gave the highest support anywhere, 53 percent, for the anti-immigrant League in polls this week.

The party became the powerful junior partner in the winning conservative coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, elected prime minister for the third time.

On the village’s piazza, framed by a playground and yellow stucco municipal offices, residents said they felt marginalised by the central government in Rome and expressed worries about everything from immigration to potholes.

“We’ve been abandoned. We’re paying for the air we breathe. We get no help,” said Gino Ferrarri, a 69-year-old pensioner and longtime League supporter.

Gianpietro Dalla Costa, head of a 10-town district council, said the result was more than just protest votes.

“It’s a vote of hope that something will change, that some things will get better in this area that feels so cast away,” he said as thick clouds hung over distant snow-capped mountains.

Umberto Bossi, firebrand leader of the League, who once suggested the navy should shoot across the bows of migrant boat people, scored about 8 percent in the vote, nearly double the level in 2006 elections.

LEFT-WING WIPEOUT

Bossi also pulled votes from big-city working-class voters, wiping out a series of far-left parties, and expanded out of his base in northern Italy.

But the League’s best showing was in Crespadoro’s region, the wealthy Veneto, with its large number of immigrants. The tourist mecca of Verona alone polled 27 percent for the party.

Carla Cailotto, a Crespadoro city hall clerk and League backer, said the party had tapped into resentment against immigrants who had failed to integrate into Italian life.

“See, he’s been here 10 years and still hasn’t learned to speak Italian,” Cailotto, 33, said after serving a turbaned, white-bearded Indian at the city offices.

About 14 percent of village residents are immigrants, mostly from South Asia or Africa, up from none in 1991, she said.

Crespadoro, about 90 km (55 miles) west of Venice, has also been hit hard by globalisation, especially the tanneries and marble finishing plants strung along its River Chiampo.

With Italy’s economy stagnant, workers are worried about their jobs and competition, said Mayor Alessandro Mecenero, a 41-year-old cardiologist.

“A political force that expresses a safeguard for work, a safeguard for the territory, is definitely one with an advantage,” said Mecenero, who is affiliated to the centre-left Democratic Party.

FISCAL FEDERALISM

Residents also feel frustrated that taxes go to central coffers in Rome to be divided up nationally, echoing Bossi’s call for “fiscal federalism” to keep more money in the north.

Mecenero said the campaign vow hit home since residents had only to look next door at the special fiscal status enjoyed by Trentino, one of Italy’s autonomous regions.

More tax money has special appeal for a municipality stretched over mountainsides, with 80 km (50 miles) of roads to maintain and a social services budget stretched by immigrant needs, he said.

Bossi, who once called the Italian flag fit for toilet paper, brought down Berlusconi’s first government in 1994 after just seven months when he withdrew his support.

But he proved a loyal ally in Berlusconi’s second term which ran for a full five years from 2001, serving as reforms minister until he suffered a stroke in 2004.

Bossi “can’t do as he did the first time”, said Ferrarri, the pensioner. “He has to behave himself, otherwise the League will lose all its votes here.”

Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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