Dishing the Dirt

Robert Calderoli: populist rabble-rouser of the Northern League. The Italian politician brought about his own demise during the previous Berlusconi government by wearing a T-shirt displaying the Muhammad cartoons. Stefan Ulrich reports

Robert Calderoli: populist rabble-rouser of the Northern League. The Italian politician brought about his own demise during the previous Berlusconi government by wearing a T-shirt displaying the Muhammad cartoons.

Roberto Calderoli (photo: AP)
Reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated – after being forced to resign in 2006, Calderoli is line to return to a ministerial post in the new Berlusconi government

​​Roberto Calderoli, Italy's very own political Mr Nasty is every bit as black as he is painted. The 52-year-old mouthpiece of the regional Northern League party never misses a trick when it comes to dishing the dirt and bad-mouthing his favourite targets: homosexuals, southern Italians and immigrants.

Take his proposal that a shot across their bows would be the best way of stopping refugee ships in the Mediterranean, for instance. Or his advice to immigrants: "go back to the desert and talk with camels, or to the jungle and dance with monkeys".

The former Vice President of the Italian Senate has it in for Muslims especially. Last September he threatened to obstruct plans for the construction of a mosque in Bologna by bringing a pig to the building site to defile the plot of land chosen for the project.

Delicate relations with Libya

Now, in return, Libya is seeking to thwart Calderoli's bid to become a member of Silvio Berlusconi's new government. In a widely publicised official statement, Seif-ul-Islam Gaddafi, son of the dictator, branded Calderoli a "murderer" and threatened that "dire consequences" would result were the League man to be appointed to the Cabinet. The Arab League has been angered too.

This nasty, unpalatable aftertaste is the consequence of a particularly disagreeable dish of dirt. In February of 2006, Calderoli appeared on Italy's RAI state television channel wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the infamous Muhammad cartoons.

As a result, violent protests, apparently ignited by Islamic extremists, erupted in front of the Italian consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi. The Libyan police opened fire and eleven people were killed. Calderoli was forced to resign from his position as Reform Minister. He would later apologise and talk of "the worst night of my life".

His frequent verbal gaffes, however, are something he has been prepared to defend as a consequence of him being the one left to do the dirty work.

Muammar al-Gaddafi (photo: dpa)
Could the return of Calderoli strain relations between Italy and the Libyan dictator?

​​ "I'm not xenophobic, though I do rant on in a bit of a xenophobic way. If you want people to listen to you have to lay it on a bit thick." But this is the very man, who, it seems, now has a very good chance of returning to his former position as Reform Minister in Rome.

It is very likely that there is as much political calculation as outrage behind Libyan protests however. Relations between the Gaddafi empire and Italy, the former colonial power, are somewhat delicate.

By way of compensation for colonial wrongs, dictator Muammar el Gaddafi has been demanding that Rome build a 2000-kilometre motorway along the Libyan coast.

Setting one's own house in order first…

On the other hand, Italy is a major investor in the Libyan oil and natural gas business; only recently Berlusconi and his Russian friend Vladimir Putin got together to talk about energy deals with Libya.

Besides, Berlusconi needs Gaddafi's help if he is to deliver on his election promise to cut back on the number of illegal African immigrants currently flooding in their thousands into Italy across the Mediterranean Sea.

Calderoli could now provide Gaddafi with a useful tool with which to strengthen his own hand and help him apply pressure on Rome. The Italians will not let themselves be pushed into a corner quite as easily as that however.

The outgoing left wing government of Prime Minister Prodi has joined forces with Berlusconi's right-wingers to unanimously condemn Libya's interference.

The formation of a new Italian government is nobody's business but Italy's, Massimo D'Alema the current Foreign Minister pointed out. Right wing politicians called on Libya to set its own house in order first before it presumed to know about democracy.

And what about Calderoli, populist rabble-rouser of the Northern League? He has finally decided to keep his mouth shut. What is more, SMS messages were sent out to fellow party members requesting that they, too, refrain from commenting. The rest – for the time being – is silence.

Stefan Ulrich

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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