ANALYSIS: How Italy’s far right was stalled by the coronavirus crisis

Right-wing populist League party leader Matteo Salvini has seen his popularity fall as the coronavirus pandemic drowned out his anti-immigrant message - but will he make a comeback as Italy leaves lockdown behind?

ANALYSIS: How Italy's far right was stalled by the coronavirus crisis
(R-L): League party leader Matteo Salvini, head of Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and co-founder of Forza Italia, Antonio Tajani, march in Rome on June 2nd. Photo: AFP

Salvini is now less visible in the media after being almost omnipresent last year – before he brought his own coalition government down in a botched bid to become prime minister.

The then-deputy prime minister and interior minister collapsed the League's coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) in a power grab that became a major tactical blunder.

His former M5S allies instead in September formed a government with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), sending Salvini into his more habitual role in opposition.

Since then, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's approval rating has soared to 60 percent while Salvini's has plummeted to 30 percent.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus crisis strengthens Italian PM Conte at home and abroad

Around 26 percent of Italians now say they would vote for his League party, down from its 34 percent score in 2019's European Parliament elections, but remaining Italy's single most popular party.

“His favourite theme of immigration has been pushed to the background by the coronavirus crisis,” explains Vincenzo Galasso of Milan's Bocconi University.

Salvini has also flip-flopped on the epidemic, initially being against lockdown before making a U-turn in the face of the devastating facts.

He was also widely criticised after calling for churches to reopen for Easter, at the height of the pandemic, in an attempt to capitalise on his staunch Catholic image.

“He wasn't able to differentiate himself from what the government was doing, which he always did previously with the immigration question,” said Galasso.


During the virus crisis, Italy decided to make many illegal migrants legal, a move that did not provoke any kind of public outcry

Even within his own party, the Veneto region's president Luca Zaia has seen his popularity rise spectacularly thanks to his exemplary management of the crisis in the hard-hit northern region.

But Salvini is determined to claw his way back to power, renewing his call for early elections, accusing the government of “not having clear ideas”.

 “Let's ask the people to vote for a government that will last five years and has clear ideas,” Salvini said in an interview published Monday in the daily La Stampa.

Salvini, known for his frequent travelling on the party campaign trail, has also effectively started campaigning again, visiting Campania in the south last week and central regions Marche and Abruzzo this week.

Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini at a far-right rally in Rome on June 2nd. Photo: AFP

Salvini tried to remobilise along with Giorgia Meloni, the head of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, with a rally in Rome on June 2nd, but it did not go according to plan.

“People didn't respect social distancing rules at all,” said Alessandro Giacone, historian at Bologna University.

This was roundly criticised, giving the impression of a leader who is not always prudent.”

Meloni herself has seen her party's popularity shoot up from 4.3 percent of votes in 2018 elections to 14.6 percent of voter intentions today.

Just 36 percent of Italians say today that they would vote for the ruling PD and M5S, compared to the 51 percent they garnered in the 2018 elections.

Giacone says the League and other right-wing parties would probably win snap elections.
 “Everything depends on what kind of alliance Salvini will make,” he said.

“He's hesitating between two positions. He would like to form a sovereigntist anti-European alliance (with Meloni) but there are those within his party who want a more moderate position,” along with Silvio Berlusconif, the ormer centre-right prime minister and Salvini's longtime political ally, says Giacone.

That's why “his political position is not very clear at the moment.”

By AFP's Céline Cornu

See more of The Local's reporting on Italian politics here.


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Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.