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.
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.
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.
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.
It’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.