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MILAN (Reuters) - Umberto Bossi's exit as Italy's Northern League secessionist leader ends a 30-year career that saw him rise from a rabble-rouser with a following in the wealthy north to become the main political ally of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Bossi, who started off in the 1980s attacking Italy's corrupt political system, hastily resigned on Thursday, crushed by judicial allegations that party money had been used to pay for his family extravaganzas, including the renovation of his villa and travel and expensive cars for his children.
An unorthodox politician fond of littering his speech with expletives, Bossi, 70, ruled the League with an iron fist and put federalism on the Italian political agenda, building on resentment in Italy's wealthy north against the capital, that he dubbed 'Robber Rome'.
His resignation seriously undermines the populist, anti-immigration political movement, the main party opposing Prime Minister Mario Monti in government.
Without Bossi at its helm, there will be doubts about the League's ability to survive in the face of disillusion among voters after a raft of corruption scandals engulfing several Italian parties.
"The Northern League is going to melt down," said Renato Mannheimer, a political analyst and one of Italy's best-known pollsters. "The League is based on Bossi and he won't easily be replaced."
Bossi came to the fore in the 1980s by giving a voice to an army of angry tax-payers in Italy's north by attacking misgovernment, and offering them the dream of severing ties with Rome to build a northern republic, which he called by the made-up name 'Padania'.
After scoring his first political success in the general election of 1990, at the peak of yet another corruption wave in Italy, he presented his party as completely detached from the country's old party system.
While other Italian parties held court mainly in Rome's palazzi, Bossi wooed followers through frequent rallies and colorful ceremonies that embraced Celtic mythology.
Famous, among others, was the annual ceremony seeing him collect water from the spring of Italy's biggest river 'Father Po', where he and thousands of supporters sported green party shirts and other Northern League paraphernalia.
Openly racist and known for his vitriolic attacks on opponents and journalists, he often raised his middle finger in public, calling immigrants 'bingo-bongos' and saying that immigrants trying to reach Italian shores should be shot out of the water.
Even after a stroke in 2004 left him with his speech partially impaired, Bossi did not relinquish power, though Northern League insiders said this marked the beginning of a growing influence of a group of protégées, known as the 'magic circle'.
Yet, despite his coarse language and the Northern League's colorful displays, his track record in Parliament was disappointing, irking grass-root supporters.
Tax federalism, the number one topic on the party agenda, has never become a reality in Italy even though Bossi has been in government for most of the past two decades.
On the corruption front, the latest allegations appear to suggest the League had become completely absorbed into the old party system that Bossi had claimed he wanted to destroy.
Reporting By Lisa Jucca; Editing by Andrew Osborn