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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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.