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27th Jan 2023

Feature

Can Salvini stop the League from splitting up?

  • Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian League party (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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In summer 2019, Matteo Salvini was one of the most powerful men in Italy.

The leader of the far-right League party was seen by some as a sovereignist messiah, others feared he was about to become a Mediterranean Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister and EU enfant terrible.

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But today, Salvini, who also sits in the senate, faces tough questions over his future.

Recent local elections were a bit of a fiasco for the League, although it remained strong in north-east Italy, as did other right-wing and far-right parties, such as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forward Italy and the nationalist Brothers of Italy.

But the elections aside, Salvini's big dilemma is what to do about Italian prime minister Mario Draghi.

When the League joined the Draghi-led coalition, Salvini had to tone down the fiery, anti-EU rhetoric for which some loved him so.

And it has weakened his appeal.

Some of his former voters now support Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, the only major opposition party.

"When he was [Italian] interior minister, between 2018 and 2019, Salvini was very good at focusing only on immigration, with over-the-top tones, acting almost as an opposition politician rather than a government member," Antonella Seddone, a politics professor at the University of Turin, said.

"Now he's back in government, but it's not the League that's leading the game, the party is following Draghi," she said.

Salvini is also facing threats from inside his own party.

Some of the League's big shots, such as its minister of economic development, Giancarlo Giorgetti, and the Veneto regional governor, Luca Zaia, have lost faith in the former firebrand, according to sources.

"Salvini was good at reviving the League after years of decline, but now we need a more collegial management. The League has many excellent men with important administrative skills," an influential contact in the League, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver.

"In summer you go to the sea, in winter you ski," the contact added, alluding to a change of leadership.

Salvini tried to recover some of his populist lustre ahead of the regional elections.

He attacked the Draghi government on tax and immigration.

But for all that, Salvini merely looked like he was "flip-flopping" between Draghi and his old self, leaving voters "puzzled", Marco Follini, a Berlusconi-era deputy-prime minister, said.

Lame duck?

Salvini has a Plan B in case he becomes a lame duck in the coalition or a dead one in the League, according to Italian investigative magazine Espresso.

This consists of forming his own party, called 'Italians first', together with sovereignists and nationalists.

But if even some in the League were plotting his demise, for others this seemed an unlikely scenario, given that he still had trusted backers in the party.

"They need Salvini: let's not forget he took the party from four to 39 percent [in polls], even though it's now back to 20 percent," Carlo Cunegato, a left-wing local politician from the Veneto region, said.

Some of those close to the League's Giorgetti believe the party should return to its roots as a regionalist opposition.

But that would be a strategic mistake for Marcello Pera, an Italian philosopher and Berlusconi-era senate president.

"The League's problem today concerns its identity," Pera said.

It should stay away from "petty, day-to-day opposition" and become more electable at national level, he noted.

"The League needs a true national identity, one that is more modern, pro-EU, and governmental. Those who want to revive a regionalist party, for example the group close to Giorgetti, are wrong. We need a national party, not a return to the valleys," Pera said.

Salvini's dilemma

And so Salvini faces tough questions.

He cannot both be Draghi's junior partner and the demagogue of the valleys.

He cannot keep transforming the League into a national force and be the bad boy of Italian and EU politics at the same time.

And even if Salvini did want to regain his populist mojo, it remained to be seen if he could pull it off, because the political scene had moved on from 2019, according to one MP from an Italian centre-right party, who also asked not to be named.

"The old populist demagogues, like Trump, Bolsonaro, or Farage, are a thing of the past, or nearly so", the MP said, referring to former US president Donald Trump, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, and British Brexiteer Nigel Farage.

"To survive, populism will have to become more sophisticated, as is happening in France, where Zemmour is the new rising star. I know Salvini, and I don't think he's capable of such an evolution," the MP added, referring to Éric Zemmour, a French TV personality and far-right politician.

Meanwhile, Salvini and Draghi met face to face on Thursday.

And it seemed things went well.

Salvini said he would continue to support the former European Central Bank chief and Goldman Sachs investment banker. In return, Draghi reportedly guaranteed there will be no tax hike.

And whatever Salvini does next, some League voters seemed more interested in what Draghi could give them than in what he took away from their old identity.

"Taxes must be lowered from north to south, for all Italian businesses. There's no point in looking backward, let's look forward," Matteo, a small businessman from Vicenza, near Venice, and a League voter, said.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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