'He's lost it': How Salvini's anti-EU election campaign fell flat in Italy

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'He's lost it': How Salvini's anti-EU election campaign fell flat in Italy
Italy's deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League party (Lega) Matteo Salvini speaks to the press outside a polling station after voting for the European elections on June 8, 2024 in Milan. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

League leader Matteo Salvini failed to win back support from far-right voters who turned to Giorgia Meloni in the European Parliament elections, with a widely mocked campaign featuring a homophobic general and poor-quality AI images of pregnant men.


Deputy Prime Minister Salvini's anti-immigrant League, one of three parties in the coalition government, won just nine percent of the vote - a far cry from the party's success in 2019.

"We are alive and kicking," Salvini said on Monday, insisting that "as far as the government make-up is concerned, nothing changes".

But the 51-year-old leader now risks a leadership challenge.

READ ALSO: Who are the winners and losers of Italy's EU election?

Salvini had been hoping to woo voters away from his ally and main rival, far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party triumphed with 28.8 percent.

While Meloni presented herself as a respectable international leader with the power to change Europe from within, Salvini went after the radical right Eurosceptic protest vote under the slogan "More Italy, Less Europe".

He picked disgraced former army general Roberto Vannacci to be the League's star candidate, despite resistance from some high-ranking members including the party's founder Umberto Bossi, who instead voted for the Forza Italia party of the late populist leader Silvio Berlusconi.

Vannacci shot to fame at the start of this year after publishing a book considered misogynistic, racist and homophobic.

The general, 55, was suspended by Italy's defence ministry in February and had his pay cut for breaching army neutrality with the book, in which he denounced the "dictatorship of minorities" and wrote that gay people were not "normal".

Matteo Salvini's choice of General Roberto Vannacci (L) as main League party candidate for the European elections alienated several senior party members. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

'Woke behaviour'

Salvini saw Vannacci as catnip for the radical right and a way for the League to regain the visibility lost since Meloni's stellar rise to power.

At the last European elections in 2019, the League won a commanding 34 percent, compared to just 6.4 percent for Brothers of Italy.

Three years later, when Italians went to the polls in the national general election, the tables had turned.


While the League won just 8.9 percent, Brothers of Italy took 26 percent and a triumphant Meloni formed a coalition government with Salvini's League and Forza Italia.

Numerous electors who voted for the League in 2019 backed Brothers of Italy in 2022 - and Salvini, whose party leadership was now in doubt, wanted them back.

As a member of the same governing coalition, he could not attack Meloni directly. Instead, he banked on some of the voters usurped in 2022 being put off since then by her rapprochement with Brussels and her more moderate stance since becoming premier.

Salvini mixed anti-EU rhetoric with attempts to establish the League as the natural ally for the European radical right.

He railed on social media against "follies" such as EU environmental policies and took aim at muslims and "woke" behaviour.

'Lost it'

The League's campaign posters featured AI-generated images including a bearded pregnant man, a woman eating supposedly EU-mandated insects - rather than hearty Italian fare - and Muslims burning the "Divine Comedy" by the poet Dante Alighieri.

Another slammed "surreal eco-rules wanted by Brussels" above a picture of a man attempting to drink from a water bottle but getting his nose squashed by the cap, in reference to a new EU law requiring that plastic caps remain attached after opening.

The post went viral, with rival politician Carlo Calenda posting a video showing Salvini how drinking from a bottle could be painless.

A model was considering legal action after she said her image was used without her permission in another poster, which presented her as the ideal "free" European woman, juxtaposed with an image of woman in a niqab.


Vannacci was elected MEP this weekend with just over half a million votes, but he failed to be the catalyst Salvini hoped for.

"Everything he has done is wrong," in particular by betting on Vannacci, who is "very radical, very extreme", Daniele Albertazzi, co-director at the Centre for Britain and Europe, a think-tank, told AFP.

"Voters have stuck with Meloni because she's credible. (Salvini) doesn't seem to have won any voters from Brothers of Italy and seems to have alienated his own," he said.

"I would be surprised if he was not challenged (as party leader), because he is bringing this party down", he said. "I think he has completely lost it".



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