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Matteo Salvini: Who is the firebrand politician shaking up Italian politics?

Italy’s controversial new deputy prime minister has wasted no time in causing trouble since taking office. Matteo Salvini, leader of the extreme right Lega party, is anti-immigration, anti-EU and pro-Russia. But who is he and how did he enter the mainstream? Anne Cento Bull, of the University of Bath, revisits Salvini's rise.

Matteo Salvini: Who is the firebrand politician shaking up Italian politics?
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP,

 

Italy’s controversial new deputy prime minister has wasted no time in causing trouble since taking office. Matteo Salvini, leader of the extreme right Lega party, is anti-immigration, anti-EU and pro-Russia. But who is he and how did he enter the mainstream?

In its previous incarnation as the Lega Nord, Salvini’s party experienced uneven electoral fortunes. It formed in 1992 as a result of a merger between various regional leagues, of which the Lombard League was the most important. The Lega’s breakthrough came at the 1992 general elections, when it unexpectedly achieved 8.7% of the votes nationally and 17.3% in the north of the country.

Following the surprising success of Silvio Berlucsoni’s new party (Forza Italia) at the 1994 elections, however, Lega Nord’s charismatic founder-leader Umberto Bossi turned the party towards a radical position. He emphasised two overarching themes – secession for the north (renamed “Padania”) and opposition to immigration. His strategy proved an electoral failure. In the 2001 elections, the party took just 3.9% of the vote.

Despite its radical stance, the party took part in all four of the Berlusconi governments between 1994 and 2011, always pushing for anti-immigration legislation and increased devolution. This helped improve the Lega’s electoral performances too. In 2012, a corruption scandal threw the party into disarray and brought down Bossi. Veteran Roberto Maroni took over the leadership in 2012 and appeared to take a more moderate stance, but in the 2013 elections the Lega suffered terrible losses, taking half of the votes it had in 2008.

Salvini’s Lega

This opened the way for 41-year-old Matteo Salvini to become party secretary. His goal was to steer the party sharply to the right. Handsome and charismatic, Salvini had joined the Lega Nord at the age of 17, combining a left-wing stance with support for an independent Padania.

READ ALSO: Italians send postcards to Salvini to protest migrant policy

The new leader dismissed the party’s increasingly institutionalised image and proudly reaffirmed its radical stance. He signed up to a new pan-European alliance of radical right parties and re-embraced an extreme stance on immigration. To these, Salvini added an intransigent opposition to the euro and open support for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Salvini also sought to maximise his media exposure, with frequent appearances on TV and radio as well as print interviews. He proved extremely skillful at projecting the image of a casually dressed man of the people. He never missed an opportunity to break a taboo or show how politically incorrect he could be. He has proposed razing migrant camps to the ground and leaving boats coming across the Mediterranean to their fate rather than escorting them to the nearest port.

The new leader also dropped the Lega’s traditional anti-southerners stance, labelling it “a mistake”. Anti-political sentiment was spreading through Italy, as epitomised by the success of the Five Star Movement. That convinced Salvini that he should drop northern regionalism and focus instead on unemployment and immigration – problems that also affected the south of the country. He said “either the whole of Italy is to be saved or nobody will survive”. As for the euro, he defined the currency as “anti-industrial, anti-Italian and anti-common sense”.

The strategy worked. The Lega did well in the 2014 European elections and the 2015 administrative elections in Italy. Then, in the 2018 general elections, the newly renamed Lega (to signify its national, rather than regional, appeal) re-established an alliance with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

For the first time, it overtook its long-standing partner as the main party on the right, gaining 17% of the votes as opposed to Forza Italia’s 14%. Overall, the centre-right coalition secured 37% of the votes. The other novelty of these elections was the spectacular affirmation of the Five Star Movement, which with almost 33% was by far the most voted-for party.

No party or coalition had secured enough seats to govern on their own. After several weeks of convoluted negotiations, Salvini agreed to form a government with the Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio. It was a gamble. His party was clearly the junior partner in this coalition. However, he prevented Di Maio from becoming prime minister, with the result that a relatively obscure university law professor, Giuseppe Conte, was nominated for the role. Both Salvini and Di Maio became deputy prime ministers and Salvini shrewdly secured for himself the Interior Ministry, knowing it would deliver visibility and popularity.

Salvini’s government?

Since the government was formed, Salvini has gained the upper hand over his colleagues, constantly appearing in the national and international media. He has refused entry to Italian ports to migrant rescue ships and engaged in a very public rift on this issue with several European countries. He is even pushing for a census of Roma people. In another highly controversial move, he has threatened to remove state protection from anti-Mafia campaigner and author Roberto Saviano.

Meanwhile, Di Maio is in a much more difficult position. Having opted to become minister for economic development, labour and social policies, he needs to introduce concrete policies rather than rely on gestures and soundbites. As for Conte, he seems to be struggling to find his role in what is ostensibly his government.

Salvini’s refusal to dilute his radical stance seems to be playing well to the electorate. The Lega is now as popular as the Five Star Movement and may even have overtaken the latter as the first party of choice among the electorate.

What does it all mean for Italy and Italians? How radical is this government going to be? The signs are that there will be no withdrawal from the euro or the EU. On other issues – including drastic tax cuts, the flagship of the Lega programme – much depends on whether Salvini will compromise on the substance of policy-making or stay true to his rhetoric.

The ConversationIt’s also possible that Salvini will withdraw his support from the government and opt for new elections while his party is riding high in the polls. He has certainly proved himself ruthless in the past. There’s no reason to believe he’d stop short now.

Anna Cento Bull, Professor of Italian History and Politics, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

READ MORE: Salvini vows to end all migrant arrivals to Italy by boat

ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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