Lombardy's alpine foothills have long been considered impregnable for the left. But with its Northern League rulers crippled by scandals, Italy's richest and most populous region is on the verge of becoming a "swing state".
The temperature has dropped to below zero in snow-capped Varese but the candidates from left, right and centre are out en mass canvassing in the dying hours of Italy's election campaign.
Polls open in landmark Italian elections
Polls opened for Italy's general election on Sunday, as financial markets and European capitals held their breath amid fears of an uncertain outcome.
Polls will close at 2100 GMT on Sunday and open again for a second day of voting at 0600 GMT on Monday, closing at 1400 GMT.
“It's the first time we’re having an election in February; we're not used to campaigning in the snow,” says Fabrizio Taricco of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
But campaign he must, because this northernmost outpost of Lombardy is where Italy's February 24-5 general election will be decided.
As Nichi Vendola, the left-wing governor of Puglia, a sun-bathed region at the other end of the Italian boot, put it earlier in the campaign, “Lombardy is not just our Ohio; it is our Virginia and Florida as well.”
“In terms of political and economic weight, it is more like our California,” argues Professor Paolo Bellucci of the University of Siena.
Italy's richest and most populous region alone accounts for 47 of the Italian Senate's 315 seats, and the leader of the centre-left coalition, Pier Luigi Bersani, knows he needs a victory in this right-wing stronghold to secure a stable majority in both houses of parliament.
For the first time in two decades, his party has a genuine chance of winning.
Two years ago, the left scored a symbolic victory by capturing Milan, Silvio Berlusconi's hometown and the regional capital. But winning in the hostile towns and villages that lie at the foot of the Alps is a very different matter.
“There, the Northern League is not a party, it's a faith,” says Francesca Panzarin, founder of womenomics.it and a candidate in the regional elections that also begin on Sunday.
The industrious areas around Varese are home to tough, hard-working Lumbàrd who like to speak their local dialect and mind their own business. As the local saying goes, “Clever people here eat stones so they may sh*t gravel”.
Over the years, the anti-immigrant Northern League of firebrand leader Umberto Bossi has cultivated a visceral attachment to the lands irrigated by the great river Po, crossing Italy's north, from the western Alps to the Adriatic.
Rome is the enemy
While an ailing Bossi is now out of the picture, his successors still pursue the dream of an independent “Padania” separated from “Roma ladrona” (Rome the thief).
The party's new leader, Roberto Maroni, a former interior minister under Silvio Berlusconi, is campaigning for the presidency of the region on a platform of “Lombard taxes staying in Lombardy”.
According to Francesca Panzarin, who is based in Milan, “The League's supporters are not so much contemptuous of the left as they are of Italy”.
In Varese, the PD's Taricco also denies there is a cultural antagonism between the Lumbàrd and the left.
“The vision of society here may be a little more individualistic than what we advocate,” he conceded. “But the local work ethic is very much in line with the seriousness, sobriety and coherence of our leader Bersani.”
A former minister who helped liberalise key segments of the Italian economy during the short-lived centre-left governments of Romano Prodi (1996-1998 and 2006-2008), Bersani hardly fits the “communist” label so often pegged onto the left by the Northern League and its ally Berlusconi.
“He may not have much charisma or make wild promises like Berlusconi, but he is seen as a brave and concrete person who gets things done,” says Paolo Paliaga, 41, who teaches economics at the European School of Varese.
Since Bersani took over the PD's leadership in late 2009, the party's fortunes in Lombardy have improved dramatically. While it lagged behind the right by a staggering 20% in regional polls in 2010, it is now tied with Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) and the Northern League.
Scenting blood, the party's leadership has flocked to Lombardy's northern reaches over the last few days, campaigning deep into enemy territory.
But its main asset has been the right's own weaknesses. While Berlusconi's popularity has plummeted, beset by multiple scandals, so has the Northern League's.
Italy's complex 'pigsty' electoral law
Italy's current electoral law is so complex and cumbersome it has been dubbed "porcellum", or pigsty, by the person who wrote it. The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, has 630 seats, while the Senate has 315 (plus four senators appointed for life). All elected seats are up for grabs on February 24-5. Seats in both chambers are allocated on a proportional basis, with a variety of thresholds designed to encourage parties to form coalitions. Whichever coalition comes first in the national vote is awarded a "majority prize" in the Chamber of Deputies, guaranteeing it has at least 340 of the 630 seats. "Majority prizes" also apply in the Senate, but on a regional basis, making it more difficult for any one coalition to secure a majority of seats in both chambers.
The party's once untouchable governor of Lombardy, Roberto Formigoni, has been swept away by a spate of investigations for corruption.
On Friday, Italy's Court of Accounts said corruption in the region had surpassed the levels of the tangentopoli (or “bribesville”) scandals that brought down Italy's political establishment in the early 1990s – and fuelled the rise of Bossi's Northern League.
“What was once an anti-establishment party is now part of an establishment that is more infiltrated by the mafia than its counterparts in the south,” said Paolo Paliaga, for whom “the very foundations of the Lombard right are crumbling”.
While the Northern League may yet remain in charge of its most cherished region after polls close on Monday, there is no doubt the mood is downbeat among many of its supporters.
On Friday, Maroni told FRANCE 24 he had “not one regret” -- not even over his decision to revive the old alliance with Berlusconi just days after vowing never to do so again.
But many of his supporters in Varese do harbour regrets. “Renewing the alliance was a mistake, but there was no other option to hold on to power,” said Ottavio Biasibetti, 74.
Nearby, 20-year-old Martina Messina was busy handing out leaflets for Emanuele Monti, a Northern League candidate dubbed the “Real Monti”.
She said she still wasn't sure who she would vote for, although she added: “One thing is sure, it won't be the Northern League. I'm only doing this for a day's pay.”
In pictures: a visit to Lombardy's voters
20-year-old Martina Messina (left) is not sure who she will vote for, "but definitely not the Northern League". Photo credit: Ben Dodman
Former interior minister Roberto Maroni has described his left-wing opponents as "no better than (Cambodia's) Pol Pot". Photo credit: Ben Dodman
Fabrizio Taricco of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) says Pier Luigi Bersani's sober style can appeal to the hard-working people of Lombardy. Photo credit: Ben Dodman
Paolo Paliaga, 41, says the Northern League never obtained anything from its alliances with Berlusconi, least of all the federalism it promised to its supporters. Photo credit: Ben Dodman
"No to the immigrant vote," says the poster on the left. Photo credit: Ben Dodman
Old party posters at the Northern League's headquarters in Varese, some dating back to before the party turned anti-European. Top right: "Further away from Rome, closer to Europe". Photo credit: Ben Dodman
The green flags of the separatist Northern League float behind the statue of Garibaldi, symbol of Italian unity, in Varese's Piazza del Podestà. Photo credit: Ben Dodman
Date created : 2013-02-23