The anti-immigration, eurosceptic leader was the dark horse of the March 4th vote, with his League party emerging as the strongest member of a rightwing coalition which topped the polls. But no single force obtained the numbers needed to form a majority in parliament, since Salvini's alliance garnered 37 percent of the vote and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) almost 33 percent.
In the months of political horsetrading that ensued to form a government, the nationalist Salvini has seen his hand strengthened and is experiencing a meteoric rise in the opinion polls. From 17 percent on election day, surveys now put the League at over 20 percent – it scored 22 percent in a recent IndexResearch poll – while other parties' ratings have largely stayed the same as in March or declined.
Seemingly unable to put a foot wrong, the bullish Salvini has begun calling the shots. He called off a proposed populist coalition government between his party and the Five Star Movement after President Sergio Mattarella rejected his choice for economy minister, the eurosceptic Paolo Savona.
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Under the Italian constitution, the president has the power to veto proposed members of the cabinet.
"I will never accept that anyone says no to an Italian government minister," Salvini said on Wednesday. "Either the government is the one proposed or there is no government."
After the Five Star-League alliance collapsed, fresh polls looked to be the most likely outcome of the political saga. But while Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio is scrambling to put the coalition back on track, Salvini says he welcomes a return to the polls, confident that his party would emerge stronger than ever.
"We will go back to the polls together with those who support our programme," said Salvini at a campaign rally in Pisa. "Because Italy can no longer be the country that continues to say 'yes sir' to Europe."
What explains Salvini's popularity boom?
Data websites suggest his omnipresence in the media is a factor. According to the website Mediamonitor.it which follows 1,500 media sources, Salvini was mentioned 13,533 times from May 14th to 29th, far more than Five Star's Di Maio.
Analysts also suggest that his unflinching stance on the party's core issues at a time of great uncertainty appeals to voters. The League appears "as the political group with the greatest consistency... this consistency makes them more clearly identifiable," said Marc Lazar, political science professor at Rome's Luiss University.
Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
Another string in the bow of the 45-year-old Salvini, who entered the world of politics aged just 17, is his gift for public speaking.
"Salvini's communication skills are quite remarkable," said Lazar, adding that the League leader understands how to "play the public against the institutions".
Salvini stays close to his support base on social media, his informal and often outspoken posts earning him millions of followers on Facebook and hundreds of thousands on Twitter. And he constantly seeks dialogue, encouraging his supporters to comment on his posts.
How does his M5S counterpart measure up?
Analysts contrast Salvini's political prowess with the relative inexperience of the 31-year-old Di Maio, who entered politics with his election to parliament in 2013.
"Luigi Di Maio, despite leading the party with the most votes, has no clear strategy and no cultural or ideological background to guide him," Fabbrini said. "So he makes choices that are very tactical, with little political experience."
On Tuesday night at a rally in Naples, Di Maio recognized his ally Salvini's clout.
Having called for Mattarella's impeachment for blocking the coalition's government, Di Maio conceded: "We cannot impeach the president because Salvini does not want to."
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Photo: Paco Serinelli/AFP
By Ljubomir Milasin