* Northern League courts controversy with aggressive antics
* Rhetoric rarely followed by concrete reforms
* Signs in schools seen as step too far
By Catherine Hornby
ADRO, Italy, Sept 30 Pupils going back to school this month in the northern Italian town of Adro had something new to stare at on the walls: hundreds of signs and stickers promoting the country's break-up.
The message is a brainchild of the town's mayor, a member of the Northern League party, whose supporters have also called for a ban on Italy's national anthem at official ceremonies.
In recent weeks, the federalist member of Italy's governing coalition has courted controversy on a daily basis, at a time when Rome is celebrating 140 years as the nation's capital.
Party chief Umberto Bossi has joked that Rome's ancient acronym SPQR stands for the phrase "These Romans are pigs", a remarkable statement given that he is a minister in Silvio Berlusconi's government.
With the future of the coalition increasingly open since a split in Prime Minister Berlusconi's centre-right party, observers say the anti-immigrant League is ramping up its rebellious antics to rally voters ahead of potential elections.
A confidence motion which Berlusconi survived on Sep. 29 has provided only a temporary respite and many commentators say national elections could come as early as next spring, a prospect the League relishes.
"This is a strategy to win votes in all areas of the North, especially as a good part of the population is disillusioned with Berlusconi," said Renato Mannheimer, a political sociologist at the University of Milan.
Winning the governorship of Veneto and Piedmont in a regional vote in March, reflecting a similar electoral shift towards populist, anti-immigrant parties across Europe, the League now also has its sights set on the town hall of Italy's business capital Milan.
With its members installed in top national posts including at the helm of the interior ministry, the party also has big ambitions regarding the economy and finances of the North. League politicians have been at the forefront of the battle over the future of Italy's biggest bank UniCredit (CRDI.MI).
The regions where it holds sway are home to some of the politically connected Italian banking foundations which played a decisive role in the resignation of UniCredit's chief executive Alessandro Profumo last week. [ID:nLDE68L1GP]
The pervasive influence of the party, which lambasts waste and corruption in the poorer south of Italy, is felt on the streets of Adro, where the League's distinctive symbol known as the 'Sun of the Alps' also adorns benches and garbage bins.
"These are symbols of our land in the North, our Padania," said 57-year-old market vendor Carlo, wearing a jumper and bracelet in the League's signature green, and referring to the name the party uses for the more well-off northern regions.
Since its official formation through the merger of several regional leagues in the early 1990s, the League has often resorted to aggressive language to rally support.
But the rhetoric is yet to produce its stated goal of greater autonomy for the North, which ranges from demands for secession to the current focus on federal reform.
"Federalism is just a farce," said Tito Boeri, economics professor at Milan's Bocconi University. "They talk a lot but absolutely nothing has happened."
Experts said the League has had more success in cementing its influence over key political and financial interests.
Emboldened by strong gains in regional ballots and solid approval ratings, it has gained a central place in Berlusconi's government, while his popularity has been hit by political squabbling and a series of corruption scandals.
"Going into national government has shown them that they have become well rooted in northern society, with control in key positions of power and for the time being they are happy with that," said Anna Bull, professor of Italian history and politics at the University of Bath in England.
A STEP TOO FAR
As its power has become cemented in the country's establishment, however, the League has lost some of its original innovative drive, sprung from a desire to fight the inefficiency and corruption of Rome's ruling elite in the early 1990s.
"With all its shortcomings, this party represented a possibility for renewal," said Bull. "Now it's politics as usual but in the meantime the country is continuing to decline."
Populist slogans such as 'Enough taxes, enough Rome' and 'No to the immigrant vote' remain effective however, especially in terms of expanding their support base beyond the north of Italy, where concerns about immigration are growing.
But the decision by Adro's mayor to involve a state school in the League's campaign for a separate northern identity may have been a step too far that highlights the party's reliance on show tactics and separates it from the mainstream.
Several parents of children at the school and nursery attended by 3- to 14-year-olds have reacted with outrage to the the party signs, which resemble a flower in a circle and can be seen on the entrance mats, walls, and even on the desks.
Their protests and petitions have prompted the education minister to demand the removal of the signs, fuelling mass media coverage that has forced the mayor, Danilo Oscar Lancini, to lie low for days.
"This is a typical expression of a certain pocket of League supporters that has certainly damaged the League," said Mannheimer at the University of Milan. "It has shown up the League not as a governing party but purely as a party of propaganda."
(Editing by Ruth Pitchford)