Return of the populist: Matteo Salvini launches his political comeback

Salvini had carefully planned the gathering so that its tone was more moderate than extreme.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The former deputy prime minister of Italy Matteo Salvini may yet realise his vaulting political ambitions: to reshape Italian politics – consensual and centrist, if turbulent, for most of the post-war era – and to be the catalyst that enthrones populist-nationalism as the governing mode of European life.

If he is given time and power to make a credible attempt at doing so, Salvini will regard the massing of his supporters in Rome’s vast Piazza San Giovanni on 19 October as the beginning of his comeback.

The square had historically been the principal locus for communist and left-wing demonstrations, as Salvini reminded the crowd. “Now it is ours!” he declared.

Indeed, a mass communist party no longer exists in Italy; the Partito Democratico (PD) is more centrist and is at war with itself. The trade union movement is shrinking, while the working and lower-middle classes continue to drift to the right and far right.

Many are drawn to Salvini and his Lega party, a movement created in the early 1990s to demand autonomy for “Padania” – a vaguely defined region in the north of Italy – and which Salvini has since turned into a national political force. The party is fiercely opposed to immigration from North Africa and scorns what it regards as liberal tolerance among the elite, especially left-leaning magistrates.

After winning 17 per cent of the vote in the election of March 2018, Salvini formed a governing coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5S), led by Luigi di Maio. The two parties were committed to implementing generous state handouts and tax cuts, as well as harsher state controls for immigrants and criminals.

But in August 2019, Salvini broke the coalition and called for new elections. Lega had a 15-point lead in the polls and Salvini dominated the media coverage; he toured Italy, shaking hands, posing for selfies, giving speeches, and was rarely in his office (in addition to being deputy PM he also served as interior minister).

In his efforts to win a majority government for Lega, however, Salvini miscalculated and was outflanked by Giuseppe Conte, the law professor drafted in as prime minister when Salvini and Di Maio could not agree on who should take that post.

On 20 August in parliament, Conte piled odium on Salvini, as the latter sat helplessly mute beside him, kissing his rosary whenever Conte accused him of demeaning Catholicism. The M5S then struck a hasty coalition deal with the centre-left PD and, with the blessing of President Sergio Mattarella, took power, with Conte continuing to serve as prime minister.

Piazza San Giovanni, with the magnificent Archbasilica of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the background, was the salve to Salvini’s humiliation and the benediction to his renewed purposes. Before the large and mostly young crowd he was hailed as leader. Alongside him were two comrades – Giorgia Meloni, head of the small but growing far-right Fratelli d’Italia; and the never-say-done 83-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, whose public doubts about mixing his pro-European Forza-Italia ideology with Eurosceptics were stifled in pursuit of remaining in the political game. Now Berlusconi smiled as Salvini called on the crowd to welcome and cheer the octogenarian – a courtesy that showed who was really in command.

But for those who feared a raucous parade of far-right nostrums, there was some relief. Salvini’s political strength silenced CasaPound, a neo-fascist group named after Ezra Pound, the American poet and fascist sympathiser. CasaPound members were on the Piazza San Giovanni – many among the crowd asked for selfies with Simone di Stefano, the group’s secretary – but they used their hands for clapping rather than to give the straight-arm fascist salute.

Salvini had carefully planned the gathering so that its tone was more moderate than extreme. At the rally’s opening, a video of the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci – an indefatigable and exciting interviewer, who towards the end of her life became a critic of Islam and of liberalism – delighted the crowd. She expressed a wholehearted declaration of love for Italy and talked of the “lump in my throat” she got whenever the Italian national anthem was played.

Salvini spoke of how Lega had acted humanely in refusing immigrants’ entry into Italy, a policy that has surely contributed to the deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. He also promised the crowd greater political support for the police, poured sarcasm on magistrates and declared his pride in the nation. “There are two types of communist,” he cried, “those in the drawing rooms, as the PD, and those on the streets, like the Five Star.” Meloni – slight, expressive and focused – said: “They [once] waved the red flag here; now, the crowds are waving the tricolour. This square is the sign of [the left’s] defeat.”

It was a model of a mass rally: enthusiastic, militant, orderly. The new governing coalition, on the other hand, flounders in office as it struggles to pass a finance bill, and its political star, the former PD prime minister Matteo Renzi, has left his party to create a new group, Italia Viva.

Salvini, meanwhile, has the support of Meloni and Berlusconi. What is coming in Italy is a serious attempt to overturn a centre-left government with no mandate from the electorate.

If Salvini and Lega succeed, they must then decide how far to the right they want to go, how much they can defy the European Union’s demand that Italy reduces its national debt, and how successful they can be in revivifying a Europe-wide nationalism.

The new right in Italy is not fascism and it is unlikely to become so anytime soon. But victory for Salvini would mean the new EU leadership will face a revived Italian movement that will inspire and inject renewed energy into its fellow nationalists across the continent. It will force the EU into a hard political battle to reassert a vision of progressive integration from which too much faith has drained.

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state