How Italy’s separatist Northern League went national

By imposing a harsh anti-migrant, tax-cutting agenda, the hard-right party has turned government into a permanent campaign platform. 

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On the evening of 17 October, having been invited on national TV to defend his government’s budget, Italy’s deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio remarked with dismay: “This isn’t the document we agreed.” The Five Star (M5S) leader could not explain why a text that he had first seen 90 minutes earlier suggested that Italians who stashed funds abroad would benefit from a tax amnesty – a breach of his party’s anti-corruption stance.

Had Di Maio only just realised what he had agreed to? Another possibility, put to him on air, was that the wording chosen by the cabinet undersecretary (a member of the Lega, M5S’s coalition partner) had defied ministers’ wishes. But under the spotlight, the M5S leader resembled a schoolboy confronted with his sloppy homework; he seized a pen to strike out the document’s offending lines.

It seemed the M5S had been humiliated again by the hard-right Lega (formerly known as Lega Nord – the Northern League), with which it entered government in June. By imposing a harsh anti-migrant, tax-cutting agenda, interior minister and Lega leader Matteo Salvini has turned the new administration into a permanent campaign platform. While M5S won twice as many votes as the Lega in March’s general election, Salvini’s party has usurped it in recent polls (by 32 per cent to 29 per cent).

Even as tensions rise between Di Maio and Salvini, the fear of an early election makes the M5S ever more politically subordinate. Salvini has not just won the hard right mainstream; he is realigning the Italian politics along his chosen dividing lines. This is equally apparent in the row he has confected with the European Union over the country's budget deficit.

Indeed, while the Lega Nord was always deeply chauvinist (if not outright fascist), Salvini’s success lies in breaking it out of its northern redoubts. When he became leader in December 2013, the party was smarting from an embezzlement scandal and a slump in support to just 4 per cent in that February’s general election. Yet the crisis of the political centre and Silvio Berlusconi’s legal imbroglios allowed Salvini to remake the regionalist Lega Nord as a national force. It expanded into central-southern Italy under the banner “Us with Salvini”.

The general election in March was testament to his success. For the first time, the Lega surpassed Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. It accrued a million votes in the south and Salvini became an MP for Calabria, on the toe of the Italian boot. And though in March Berlusconi’s party and the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) performed better in regions previously written off by the Lega, the latter has since cannibalised their vote.  The once pre-eminent Forza Italia now polls just 7 per cent, while Salvini’s party (on 32 per cent) has amassed support both in its established heartlands (with support close to 50 per cent in the north-east) and in the south (22 per cent, up from 8 per cent in March).

Former Berlusconian and far-right personnel are scrambling to become Lega candidates and branch officials. The party is building a base among traditional business groups in the south and has eased its rhetoric against black-marketeers and tax evaders. But even as it seeks to broaden its support, the Lega remains profoundly polarising.

On 2 October a long-running dispute between Salvini and Domenico Lucano, the anti-racist mayor of Riace, Calabria, ended in the latter’s arrest over allegations of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. Two weeks later, the interior minister ignited a fresh row as he suggested “ethnic shops” should be forced to close at 9pm. In Lodi, Lombardy, the leghista mayor Sara Casanova has cut migrant pupils’ right to free school meals, sparking a crowd-funding campaign in the children’s defence.

These disputes align Italians along a familiar liberal-left vs right-populist axis. But there are also tensions within the government and even among the Lega’s base. The party fares poorly among professionals and enjoys greater support among employers who struggle to compete in the EU’s single market. Yet withdrawal from the eurozone – an effective default on Italy’s national debt – would devastate wealthier Lega voters’ savings. Salvini has now ruled out such a move.

The Lega’s “flat tax” policy - a reduction in all rates to 15-20 per cent - and regional leaders’ continued calls for fiscal autonomy for Lombardy and Veneto necessitate some public spending cuts. Unwilling to take responsibility for such reduced spending, Salvini thus seeks to cohere different parts of his base through an identity-based appeal.

This is the logic of the government's plan to run a 2.4 per cent budget deficit, three times as large as the 0.8 per cent proposed by the previous administration. This was widely forecast to spark a row with Brussels, in which the Lega leader could posture as the defender of Italian economic interests against a controlling EU. Indeed, the European Commission's call, this Tuesday, for the deficit to be revised downward has merely played into his hands. Salvini's offer to fly to Brussels to “explain” the government's plans, along with his insistence he will not retreat on “even one euro” shows the interior minister's determination to take personal credit also for economic policy.

The self-described “government of change” is also exploiting the centre left’s weakness. Support for the Democratic Party (PD), which polls around 17 per cent, is increasingly limited to wealthy and elderly Italians. It ranks fourth among blue-collar workers; in March the Lega did twice as well (and M5S three times better) among this group.

After decades of economic woe, PD’s warning that a high deficit will frighten the markets, or threaten Italy’s ties to the EU, persuades only the converted. Former economy minister Carlo Calenda has floated the creation of a new Macron-style centrist party, but the circumstances could hardly be less propitious. Lazio governor Nicola Zingaretti is likelier to be the next Democratic Party leader, and promises a modest social democratic shift.

Today, Salvini is welcomed by cheering crowds in parts of Italy from he once wanted the north to secede from. After its rapid rise in the early 2010s, the Five Star Movement is now losing ground wherever it has held office, and even at the national level its support is unstable. But this offers the centre left, which has lost 11 million votes since 2006, little cause for consolation. As the radical right raids the left’s old strongholds, it is struggling even to survive.

David Broder is Europe editor of Jacobin magazine

This article appears in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash