Matteo Salvini emerges as Italian conservative leader amidst a surprising surge of far-right politics

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ITAMatteoSalvini.jpegROME – Matteo Salvini, a former socialist and one-time quiz show contestant, has emerged as the de facto leader of the Italian right over comeback-minded Silvio Berlusconi after the political party he heads, the Northern League, exceeded expectations in Sunday’s national elections.

Negotiations on the next government are ongoing. But the result could put Salvini in a position to become Italy’s prime minister. If that doesn’t happen, Salvini will certainly have a big say in who will take over that role, according to 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, earning 5.7 million votes. That was a dramatic improvement comparted to just a 4.1-percent share five years ago, in the last national vote, earning the support of 1.4 million voters.

The 81-year-old Berlusconi, a billionaire former prime minister in the midst of a well-publicized political comeback, saw his party’s share of the vote fall to 14 percent, compared to 21.6 percent in 2013.

The 2013 election was no doubt the lowest point in the history of La Lega, which in addition to its all-time poorest performance at the polls was also suffering from bad press in the wake of the resignation of the party’s founder, Umberto Bossi, as head amid charges he used party funds for his family.

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 would split away to become the Republic of Padania.

In search of a new direction after the 2013 vote, La Lega turned to Salvini, who was almost unknown outside party circles.

“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 Salvini called “Matteo Salvini #theMilitant.”

Franzi said the party also evolved from one that represented a kind of U.S.-style conservatism -- anti-migration, and focusing on gun rights and regional autonomy -- to a party more in line with the European right like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, keeping the stance on migrants but becoming more skeptical of the European Union and the common euro currency.

In fact, Le Pen was among the first European leaders to offer her congratulations to Salvini after Sunday’s vote.

Salvini is also a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, using a photo the two took together in Philadelphia 2016 liberally during the recent campaign.

All told, it’s a dramatic evolution for Salvini, who will be 45 years old on Friday. Salvini’s first national exposure -- albeit in a non-political role -- came when he was 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, 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, 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, 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.”

According to Montanari, the political scientist, Salvini will now have a bigger voice in government than Bossi, La Lega’s founder, ever had.

“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 Sunday’s vote say they bristle at the label of the party as tied to the Fascist 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 male nurse.

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

“He’s the only candidate who came to the party of town where I live to ask questions and to listen to our concerns,” 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,” 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.”

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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