Un­likely leader pulls right-wing fringe to Rome’s po­lit­i­cal cen­ter

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ERIC J. LY­MAN

ROME | A former so­cial­ist and quiz show con­tes­tant who has never held a full-time job, Mat­teo Salvini, has un­ex­pect­edly emerged as the de facto leader of the Ital­ian right over come­back-minded Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni af­ter the North­ern League, the right-wing po­lit­i­cal party he heads, ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions in last week’s na­tional elec­tions and put it­self in the cen­ter of the jock­ey­ing over the next gov­ern­ment in Rome.

Back­room ne­go­ti­a­tions over the next gov­ern­ing coali­tion are un­der­way, but the re­sult could put Mr. Salvini, whose party was long dis­missed as an anti-im­mi­gra­tion fringe fac­tion with limited na­tional ap­peal, in a po­si­tion to be­come Italy’s prime min­is­ter. Even if he falls short, the 44-year-old Mi­lan na­tive will cer­tainly have a big say in who takes over, said Ari­anna Mon­ta­nari, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist and so­ci­ol­o­gist with Rome’s La Sapienza Univer­sity.

La Lega, as the party is called in Ital­ian, won nearly 17.5 per­cent of the elec­torate in a crowded field with 5.7 mil­lion votes. That was a dra­matic im­prove­ment over the 4.1 per­cent share of the na­tional vote five years ago.

The North­ern League cap­tured seats in Italy’s poorer south — far from its orig­i­nal po­lit­i­cal base — and fin­ished ahead of the more main­stream con­ser­va­tive party of Mr. Ber­lus­coni, the 81-year-old bil­lion­aire former prime min­is­ter who was bank­ing on a well-pub­li­cized po­lit­i­cal come­back. With Mr. Ber­lus­coni’s Forza Italia at 14 per­cent, down from 21.6 per­cent five years ago, Mr. Salvini has first claim to rep­re­sent the con­ser­va­tive bloc in po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions.

It’s a re­mark­able re­bound for a party that Italy’s po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment long dis­missed as be­yond the pale, given its ul­tra­na­tion­al­ism, crit­i­cism of im­mi­grants and Mus­lims, at­tacks on the Euro­pean Union and praise for Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin. It’s also one more sign of a tec­tonic shift in Ital­ian pol­i­tics in which the sin­gle big­gest vote win­ner, the Five-Star Move­ment, is a web-based party founded by a co­me­dian with pol­icy po­si­tions that span the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

The 2013 elec­tion was no doubt a low point in the his­tory of La Lega. In ad­di­tion to its weak sup­port, the party was reel­ing from bad press in the wake of the res­ig­na­tion of founder Um­berto Bossi amid charges that he used party funds for his fam­ily.

Mr. Bossi founded the party in the 1980s on the be­lief that Italy should be di­vided into two coun­tries. The poorer, less-in­dus­tri­al­ized south­ern re­gions would keep the name of Italy, and the wealth­ier north­ern re­gions that formed La Lega’s base would split away to be­come the “Repub­lic of Pada­nia.”

New direc­tion

In search of a new direc­tion af­ter the 2013 vote, La Lega turned to Mr. Salvini, who was al­most un­known out­side party cir­cles but who proved to be a canny strate­gist with a down-home, non­estab­lish­ment charisma.

“Un­der Salvini, La Lega was trans­formed from a party with al­most all its sup­port in the north to a na­tional force,” said Alessan­dro Franzi, co-au­thor of a bi­og­ra­phy of Mr. Salvini called “Mat­teo Salvini #theMil­i­tant.”

Mr. Franzi said the party also evolved from one that rep­re­sented a kind of U.S.style con­ser­vatism — anti-mi­gra­tion, pro­guns and more re­gional au­ton­omy — to a pop­ulist party more in line with ris­ing Euro­pean right par­ties such as Ma­rine Le Pen of France’s Na­tional Front. La Lega re­tains its hard line on re­strict­ing im­mi­gra­tion but has be­come far more skep­ti­cal of glob­al­iza­tion, the Euro­pean Union and the com­mon euro cur­rency.

In fact, Ms. Le Pen was among the first Euro­pean lead­ers to of­fer con­grat­u­la­tions to Mr. Salvini af­ter the vote.

The La Lega chief is a fan of Pres­i­dent Trump. Dur­ing the cam­paign, he lib­er­ally used a photo the two took to­gether in Philadel­phia in 2016.

All told, it’s a dra­matic evo­lu­tion for Mr. Salvini, 45. His first na­tional ex­po­sure — al­beit in a non­po­lit­i­cal role — was as a 20-year-old con­tes­tant on the game show “Lunch Is Served,” where con­tes­tants an­swer ques­tions to earn the five cour­ses of a tra­di­tional lunch.

Soon af­ter, Mr. Salvini dropped out of the Univer­sity of Mi­lan and be­came one of the lead­ers of Leon­cav­allo, a so­cial­ist wel­fare cen­ter in Mi­lan. In his first foray into pol­i­tics, Mr. Salvini was a so­cial­ist can­di­date for the sym­bolic re­gional par­lia­ment of Pada­nia.

“The changes in Salvini’s think­ing came fairly quickly, and all in­di­ca­tions are it was in a large part due to po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion,” said Alessan­dro Madron, Mr. Franzi’s co-au­thor on the Salvini bi­og­ra­phy. “The only way to move for­ward in the North­ern League was to move closer to the po­lit­i­cal right.”

Ms. Mon­ta­nari, the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, said Mr. Salvini will have a big­ger voice in gov­ern­ment than Mr. Bossi ever dreamed.

“Un­der Bossi, the party was al­ways a ju­nior mem­ber of the coali­tions sup­port­ing Ber­lus­coni,” she said. “Now the roles have turned around. Salvini is the new head of the Ital­ian right, a kind of new fas­cist.”

Many Ital­ians who sup­ported La Lega head­ing into the vote bris­tle at the “fas­cist” la­bel and re­ject ties to the move­ment started by Ben­ito Mus­solini be­fore World War II.

“It’s not fas­cism; it’s just a pri­or­ity of putting the pri­or­i­ties of Ital­ians first,” said Alessan­dro Ver­nucci, 36, a nurse.

Mr. Ver­nucci, who lives in the work­ing-class pe­riph­ery of Rome, said he met Mr. Salvini briefly just out­side his apart­ment in the days lead­ing up to the vote.

“He’s the only can­di­date who came to the town where I live to ask ques­tions and to lis­ten to our con­cerns,” Mr. Ver­nucci said. “That’s what a politi­cian is sup­posed to do, but he was the only one.”

An­to­nio Mezza, a 40-year-old youth soc­cer coach liv­ing near Rome, agreed.

“I don’t care if they want to call us fas­cists or what­ever,” Mr. Mezza said. “I don’t care about la­bels. What I care about is get­ting this coun­try mov­ing again, and I think Salvini’s lead­er­ship can do it.”

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