Between 16 and 21 March an unofficial referendum took place in the Veneto region of Italy, supported by a plethora of pro-independence groups. The question put to residents was direct and straightforward: “Do you want the Veneto to become an independent and sovereign Federal Republic?”
According to the organisers, the number of voters amounted to 2,360,245, representing 73% of the regional electorate. Of these, 2,102,969 (89%) voted yes, while a paltry 257,276 (11%) voted no.
The Italian press and the government in Rome largely ignored the event until the spectacular turnout and massive majority in favour of independence turned the international spotlight on this part of Europe. But since then, the participation rate has been heavily contested. Some experts calculate that no more than 100,000 votes were actually cast, many of these from abroad.
Farce or drama?
So was the entire exercise a farce, a highly successful media scoop by relatively small and uninfluential groups? Well, yes and no.
It is almost certain that the referendum attracted far fewer voters than it was claimed by the organisers. However, as pollster and academic Ilvo Diamanti reported in the national daily Repubblica on 24 March, an opinion poll carried out before the referendum found that 55% of respondents agreed with the goal of independence. Having said that, those who considered this term as synonymous with complete sovereignty did not exceed 30%.
In short the referendum was a symptom of a widespread and diffused sense of dissatisfaction, which according to Diamanti, “should be taken very seriously” by the Italian state.
This dissatisfaction revolved primarily around the “excessive” level of taxation imposed by the central state. This is not a new issue by any means.
The Northern League
In the early 1990s the Northern League (Lega Nord) party enjoyed an electoral breakthrough in the region (and in Lombardy) precisely by campaigning against “thieving Rome” and the “centralist state”. It accused them of being responsible for systematically robbing the productive north, benefiting the parasitic south and leading the country towards bankruptcy.
The party first promoted federalism as the only solution and later campaigned for secessionism, inventing the nation of Padania along the way. But in 2000 the Lega reverted to federalism and embarked on a long-lasting alliance with Silvio Berlusconi, becoming part of a coalition which governed Italy for a total of nine years.
Yet interestingly the League was not among the promoters of the recent referendum, even if it was soon ready to jump on the bandwagon. The party is in crisis following its debacle at the 2013 elections. Its image is tarnished from being perceived to have increasingly got into bed with Rome.
Throughout its period in government the party also failed to turn federalism into a concrete project and taxation remained high. In 2012 Umberto Bossi, the party’s long-standing charismatic leader, was made to stand down.
Big league, little leagues
There had existed in northern Italy prior to 1990 a number of small and fairly ineffectual regional leagues. They agreed to merge thanks to Bossi’s efforts. Now that the Northern League was coming apart, the regional leagues regained the initiative.
By far the strongest was the Liga Veneta. Unlike neighbouring Lombardy, Veneto has various characteristics of regional identity: a language that is still widely spoken; a history of independence (a sovereign Venetian Republic existed for several centuries until 1797); clear and popular symbols (especially the flag with the winged lion).
The relationship between the Lega Lombarda (Bossi’s original league) and the Liga Veneta had always been stormy, since the latter resented the iron fist with which Bossi ruled the party.
Over the years Bossi expelled various members for wanting independence for the Veneto rather than Padania as a whole. Ironically, many of these former League members were the main promoters of the recent referendum. Fabrizio Comencini, leader of Liga Veneta Repubblica, was expelled in 1998 but today at last feels vindicated.
Gianluca Busato, leader of Plebiscito.ue, the main organisation behind the initiative, was himself expelled in 1997. On 30 March Busato openly attacked the Northern League: “The Lega Nord wants to exploit our success just to be able to continue its love affair with Rome.”
Things have been happening fast since the referendum. Links have been established with other independence movements across Europe.
Busato launched a mass fiscal protest, inviting Venetians to withhold taxes. Luca Zaia, the Northern League president of the Veneto assembly, promised to relaunch a regional law calling for an official referendum.
On 2 April, 24 members of an pro-independence group were arrested under charges of terrorism, raising the ugly spectre of political violence. After seemingly ignoring the event, the recently appointed prime minister, Matteo Renzi, stated that the needs of the Veneto were for him “a priority” and announced a new visit to the region. It is still too early to say whether this is all a flash in the pan or the beginning of something new and big.
This article is part of Breaking Nations, a series of articles that examines independence movements around the world.