How Matteo Salvini lost his gamble to become Italy’s PM – for now

The end of Italy's nationalist, populist government marks a stunning defeat for League leader Matteo Salvini, but his political career is far from over.

How Matteo Salvini lost his gamble to become Italy's PM – for now
The League's Matteo Salvini (R) finds himself back in opposition. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Outgoing interior minister Salvini on Thursday railed against the “little government” that has replaced him, but he has massively lost his gamble on snap elections.

“He committed a political error rather than one of timing,” said Lorenzo Castellani, political science lecturer at Rome's Luiss University.

Salvini bet on the advantage of surprise when on August 8th, in the middle of the summer holidays, he pulled the plug on his own coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5S).

TIMELINE: 15 months of drama in Italian politics

But he underestimated the ability of Italy's parliamentary system and European allies to fight back, failing to foresee that M5S would join forces with historic rivals the Democratic Party (PD) to scupper his bid to cash in on his new popularity.

On the day he pulled the plug, opinion polls said his party would win 38 percent of votes in a national election, four more percentage points than were garnered in May's European parliamentary elections. Since then, that has fallen to around 31 percent.

One of his closest aides, Giancarlo Giorgetti, told Thursday's Corriere della Sera daily that “Salvini's fundamental mistake was to win the European elections. He became public enemy number one in Italy and beyond.”

Salvini likewise claims to be the victim of a conspiracy, calling the new M5S-PD alliance “a government against the League”.

But others say he simply overreached, banking on a lack of credible opposition. In the end Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte revealed himself an unexpected rival, stymying Salvini's call for a no-confidence vote by resigning – and using his resignation speech to make a scathing attack on the League party leader that has seen Conte's popularity climb.

PROFILE: Italy's PM Conte, the 'Mr Nobody' who found his voice

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Salvini, who relies on a strongman image polished during his stint as Italy's interior minister responsible for closing the ports to migrant rescue ships, scrambled to hold on to power as he realized his misstep, approaching the M5S to take the League back but finding his advances rejected.

Pending a return to power, Salvini, 46, who has been a politician since he was a teenager, said he “will not let go”, and called for what he hopes will be a massive anti-government rally in Rome on October 19th.

The Milan native became the head of the League in 2013 when the party was staring into the political abyss, turning the regional movement into a nationalist party that rapidly overtook centre-right ally Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia before abandoning it to form a government with M5S.


Salvini took the party to unprecedented success with his rants against immigrants, Muslims, Roma people, EU leaders, liberals and any other figures he blamed for Italy's economic and social woes. From a record performance in 2018's general election, when the League won 17 percent, the party climbed to 34 percent in European elections earlier this year.

Experts predict that his share of voter intentions will potentially drop below 20 percent because, notes Castellani, “Italians are cynical and they don't like smart alecs who turn out to be losers”.

Yet Italian philosopher Massimo Cacciari warned on Thursday in the left-leaning Stampa daily that “The PD-M5S alliance may benefit Salvini”.

“You need new ideas to fight populism. Otherwise you will open the doors wide and we'll have sovereignists in power for one or two generations,” Cacciari wrote.

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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.