politics

Populist Salvini’s Provocations Drive His Appeal Across Italy

Updated on
  • Anti-migrant League scores best result ever in Sunday’s vote
  • Salvini rides populist surge, taps anti-migrant sentiment
Five Star Wins Big in Italian Election

At the center-right’s only show of unity before Italy’s election, League leader Matteo Salvini smiled in resignation as Silvio Berlusconi kept interrupting him and cracking jokes. Four days later, Salvini has the last laugh -- and can stake a claim to the premiership.

Salvini confounded opinion polls to overtake the 81-year-old former premier Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in Sunday’s election, and lost little time in making his bid for power. France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen was among those to offer their congratulations.

Matteo Salvini on March 5.

Photographer: Piero Cruciattoi/AFP via Getty Images

“I am and will remain a populist,” Salvini, 44, told reporters in Milan on Monday.

Like the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which emerged the biggest single party in parliament, Salvini built the League’s best result ever by riding a surge of anti-globalization, euroskeptic voter anger. Their respective success has upended Italy’s political landscape, handing Salvini an opportunity to become prime minster of the country’s 65th postwar government.

“The League can go straight in and occupy the center-right of Italian politics,” said Luiss University professor, Giovanni Orsina.

Provocations

Salvini made his name with a series of provocative statements against migrants, Muslims and his own compatriots. He managed to make inroads in the depressed South of Italy despite his Milan-based party -- under the name Northern League -- having long campaigned for northern secession, and derided southerners as beggars, thieves and good-for-nothing rednecks. “Italy First” was Salvini’s nationalist slogan, echoing Donald Trump.

The son of a company manager, Salvini has long sought the limelight. He was only 12 years old when he took part in a television quiz show modelled on NBC’s Blockbusters, and he was again in a quiz show at age 20. Both appearances were courtesy of Berlusconi -- the networks were part of the media mogul’s empire.

As a young man, he was a communist who campaigned for the legalization of drugs. Salvini studied politics and history but failed to get a university degree, and joined the Northern League in 1990. A former journalist, he became a lawmaker in the European Parliament, and party leader in 2013 after his predecessor Umberto Bossi resigned in a party-financing scandal.

At the unity display in Rome on March 1, Giorgia Meloni, of the far-right Brothers of Italy, was caught on camera telling Salvini she expected the League to beat Forza Italia. Salvini emerged the victor after a series of clashes with Berlusconi over issues from tax cuts to pension reform and the euro.

Russian Sanctions

Salvini wants a 15-percent flat tax and favors protectionist tariffs, though has backtracked on opposition to the single currency. He opposed sanctions against Russia, and speaks warmly of North Korea.

Now he can claim the premiership for the coalition. “Whoever has the most seats will become premier, said Forza Italia lawmaker Renato Brunetta. “If it’s Salvini, long live Salvini,” Brunetta told La7 television.

Salvini stressed his responsibility on Monday. But what he does with this leadership is uncertain. He could stick with the coalition as he indicated. Or, given that it is short of a majority, he could team up with Five Star to form a government -- although this was ruled out during the campaign by both parties, and their members are divided on such a prospect.

“Both Five Star and the League would likely prove more moderate once in power than some of their campaign rhetoric might suggest, eager to prove their mantle as credible government parties,” said Federico Santi, an analyst with Eurasia Group. “Nevertheless, the prospect of a populist-led government will weigh negatively on the outlook for economic policy and create headwinds for Italy’s fragile economic recovery.”

Political reality may cloud that prospect, according to Marco Elser, head portfolio manager at Lonsin Capital Ltd.

“We’re in a chicken pen and there are two roosters, and they both want to be the head rooster,” he told Bloomberg Television. “Only one can be around.”

— With assistance by Alessandra Migliaccio

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE