By Sara Rossi
ASSAGO, Italy (Reuters) - Italy's scandal-plagued Northern League, the biggest opposition party against Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat government, appointed former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni as leader on Sunday to take it into elections early next year.
Maroni, who steered anti-immigration measures into law as a member of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right cabinet, must now restore the image of the party hit by a corruption probe that forced founder Umberto Bossi to step down three months ago.
Rising to prominence after the 1990s' "Bribesville" scandals destroyed the old political order, the League's self-made image as a party untainted by political greed was shredded when a judicial probe showed taxpayers' money had been used to buy perks for Bossi, his family members and his close aides.
With general elections less than a year away, backers hope Maroni can take full advantage of the growing discontent with the austerity drive of Monti's unelected government.
"Tonight, instead of watching the soccer final, I will start working for the party," Maroni said of the Euro 2012 final in which Italy faced Spain, after being acclaimed party leader in front of about 8,000 League members gathered near Milan.
"We have gone through some difficult moments and it will not be easy to win back the support of those who are no more voting us because they say we are like every other party."
The League, a devolutionist party which wants prosperous northern Italy to free itself from what it sees as the corrupt and inefficient south, has consistently voted against Monti in parliament where it has 59 members in the 630-seat lower house.
With his bright red spectacles, short moustache and goatee, Maroni, or 'Bobo', as his friends call him, is the most popular politician on the fragmented centre right, even ahead of Berlusconi, according to a survey last month by pollsters SWG.
Supporters were optimistic that Maroni, a former Marxist who played Hammond organ in a soul band before going into politics, was the right man to launch a fresh start after the long reign of Bossi from whom he had grown increasingly distant.
"It's a historic change," said 30-year-old Alessandro Panza, an office clerk from Milan. "Maroni is the only one with new ideas that bring new impetus."
The League, which refused to go along with Berlusconi in accepting the Monti government last year, faces a growing challenge from the anti-establishment "Five Star" movement of comedian Beppe Grillo, who is also harshly critical of Monti and has won strong support in the north [ID:nL6E8HRGZC].
Doubts also remain on whether Maroni will be able to fully distance himself from firebrand Bossi, who was elected Life President of the League, despite the scandal.
"One and only leader: Bossi," read one of several banners in support of the former secretary general at the party congress.
Bossi, who says he was betrayed by some of his closest aides and denies any wrongdoing, broke into tears at the congress, saying he had stood down to avoid a party split.
"Like King Solomon, I did not want to cut the League in two," Bossi said, referring to the Biblical story in which the king orders a baby claimed by two women to be cut in half, prompting the real mother to give it up rather than seeing it killed.
At Bossi's side since the birth of the Northern League, Maroni has been instrumental in shaping the secessionist and populist ideology that won the party strong support in Italy's wealthiest regions throughout the 1990s.
Less close to Berlusconi than Bossi was, Maroni won the support of grassroots voters by condemning the private use of party funds and calling for a clean-up when the scandal erupted in April.
Although Bossi resigned as secretary general, he was quickly put forward as president of the Northern League and had at some point raised the prospect he could run again as party leader.
"The Northern League has been attacked by those who wanted to torpedo the independence of Northern Italy," said Bossi. "This attack has been orchestrated. The Northern League never stole anything. The real thieves are in Rome."
(Writing and additional reporting by Lisa Jucca; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)