Far-right leader woos recession-weary Italians

Italy has a rising star: Matteo Salvini, head of the Eurosceptic Northern League, is scoring high in the polls as he bids to fill the political vacuum on the right left by Silvio Berlusconi.

Far-right leader woos recession-weary Italians
Matteo Salvini, head of the Euro-sceptic Northern League, is scoring high in the polls. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

As the country's 39-year old Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his centre-left Democratic Party (PD) battle to comply with European budget rules, Salvini, 41, is wooing recession-weary voters on an anti-immigration, anti-euro and overtly anti-Muslim platform.

"We want to have the majority in Italy. We are preparing for the future," the media-friendly former journalist said in a recent interview.

Giovanni Orsina, a professor of political science at the Luiss University in Rome, said Salvini is on track to emerge as a major player in the country's political landscape.

"He has the political space to do it," Orsina said, arguing that the Northern League is well-placed to surf a Europe-wide trend reflected most notably in the advances of Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.

Salvini is a self-confessed fan of Le Pen, who has softened the hard-right image of her party and broadened its appeal as voters across Europe have turned to populist parties in a backlash against Brussels and the economic gloom engulfing much of the eurozone.

Meanwhile, former premier Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia (FI) party is lagging seriously in the polls, but the media magnate has failed to find a credible successor.

"Silvio Berlusconi is in a very fragile position and he is an old leader, nearly 80 years old, compared to the young Salvini," Orsini said.

Salvini's aim is to extend the League's influence and appeal from the wealthy north of the country to the much poorer south, from where media tycoon Berlusconi traditionally drew much of his support.

He wants the party's "charter of values" to form the basis of a new movement which would appeal to all those who feel left behind by Renzi's reform drive or betrayed by his willingness to negotiate with Brussels over the country's debt burden.

'Decisive no to Europe'

According to Salvini, the values of his party include saying "no to immigration, no to mosques and yes to a drastic reduction in taxes."

He also advocates a "decisive no" to what he sees as the left-wing European Union.

"We have to take back our national sovereignty and currency," he said.

Earlier this week, Salvini told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Islam was "the only religion that creates problems, in Italy, Europe and in the Middle East.

"If Muslims are having a hard time coexisting with the rest of the world, the problem cannot be with all the rest of the world. It must be Islam, and indeed the Koran itself is problematic."

Orsini said how far Salvini can go would depend on the League's ability to win votes in the south by switching the focus from Italy's north-south division to a common enemy in Brussels.

Antonio Noto, head of the IPR Marketing polling institute, is sceptical about that happening. The league's voters "are all still in the north, where they are scoring up to 30 percent, but there are no signs of growth in the south," he said.

Tarnished by fraud scandals in 2012, the League only received 4.0 percent of the vote in Italy's national election in February last year, rising to 6.2 percent in the European elections.

Voter intention polls currently rank it fourth with around 8.0 percent, behind Renzi's PD (40 percent), the anti-establishment Five Star movement (20 percent) and Berlusconi's Forza Italia (15 percent).

But the bearded Salvini is the second most popular of the party leaders, with 28 percent of people in a recent poll saying he inspired the most confidence – behind Renzi (54 percent), but ahead of Berlusconi (24 percent) and Five Star founder Beppe Grillo (19 percent).

While his success weakens the already depleted billionaire Berlusconi, political watchers say he is unlikely to be able to unite those on the centre-right with the far-right to form a credible challenge to Renzi's centre-left.

"Even if by some miracle the League won 20 percent of the votes, it would still be condemned to stay in the opposition because the split in the right would be too profound" to create a coalition, Orsina said.  

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Italy defies virus for vote as far-right hopes to retake regions

Italians head to the polls on Sunday -- to the alarm of coronavirus experts -- for a referendum and regional elections that could weaken the government and radically reshape the political landscape.

Italy defies virus for vote as far-right hopes to retake regions
La Lega leader Matteo Salvini (hand raised) next to Susanna Ceccardi, the Tuscany candidate for the right-wing coalition. Photo: Carlo Bressan/AFP
Just a week after a Herculean effort by schools to reopen in line with last-minute Covid-19 rules, classrooms across the country will be shut to pupils and transformed into ballot stations for the two-day vote.
A triumph for the far-right in this fiercely fought campaign would sound alarm bells in Brussels.
It will be the first test for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's centre-left coalition government since it imposed an economically crippling nationwide lockdown to fight the virus, which has killed almost 36,000 people.
The referendum, on slashing the number of members of parliament — from 630 to 400 in the lower house, and 315 to 200 in the upper house — is expected to pass, though there has been a late uptick in the number of prominent 'no' declarations.
The cost-cutting reform is the brainchild of the co-governing Five Star Movement (M5S), but while its centre-left coalition Democratic Party (PD) partner and parties on the right are theoretically in favour, their support has been lacklustre at best.
Uncertain future
The regional battle is for governance of Campania, Liguria, Marche, Puglia, Tuscany, Valle d'Aosta and Veneto.
The right-wing coalition is set to easily retake Veneto and Liguria, and it could also snatch Marche and Puglia from the left.
But all eyes will be on Tuscany, a historic left-wing stronghold that might fall to Matteo Salvini's far-right League.
“If the left performs particularly poorly… Brussels will grow concerned,” Berenberg economist Florian Hense told AFP.
It will worry whether the national recovery plan Italy has to present to obtain grants or loans to aid its ailing economy after the coronavirus lockdown “will be ambitious enough, given the limited political capital of the coalition in Rome,” he said.
“And whether, whatever plan Italy comes up with, it will actually implement it given the uncertain future of the current coalition”.
Concern over virus
The poll is going ahead despite warnings against opening polling stations while Covid-19 case numbers are on the rise.
While Italy currently has fewer new cases than Britain, France or Spain, it is still recording more than 1,500 daily.
“The country is in a state of emergency; it is utterly contradictory to be massing people together at polling stations, particularly in light of the trend in Europe,” Professor Massimo Galli, infectious diseases chief at Milan's Sacco hospital, told AFP.
He said previously that holding the elections now would be “madness”. Some precautions have been taken however, with elderly and pregnant voters getting fast-track lanes to vote.
With older people potentially put off voting by the health risks, the left has been organising special transport.
One in three of voters for the PD and League are over 65-years old, according to Italy's Corriere della Sera daily.
Nearly 2,000 voters in isolation due to the coronavirus have also registered to have their votes collected, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
But fear of catching the virus from voters obliged to pull down their masks to allow them to be identified has seen a flurry of last-minute desertions by polling station volunteers.
Milan was forced Saturday to call urgently for 100 fresh pairs of hands.
Prime Minister Conte has clinched a behind-doors deal with PD leader Nicola Zingaretti to fight to save each other's political skins should the left should perform disastrously, according to the Repubblica daily.
That might not be enough.
“These elections are not going to topple the government,” Political commentator Barbara Fiammeri for Italy's Sole 24 Ore daily told AFP.
“But there could well be a crisis, whether it be Conte's fall, the forming of new coalition, or even a national unity government”.