The Right Wing in Italy Matteo Salvini Plots Return to the Top

It was just a couple of months ago that Matteo Salvini tripped over his ego and crashed out of the Italian government. But his right-wing populist Lega party is making a rapid comeback.

Caimi & Piccinni/ Redux/ laif

Matteo Salvini hasn't even arrived yet and already the Morelli Theater is packed to capacity. Many are forced to remain outside, and they begin talking about the man who they would so liked to have seen. And about their anger and their hopes that someone will finally save them from the misery in which they find themselves.

The square in front of the theater in the Calabrian town of Cosenza is, on this late September evening, the latest stage for a drama that is currently gripping the entire country: How is former Interior Minister Salvini dealing with his plunge into the opposition? And what is he doing to regain power?

"Salvini is the best politician Italy has seen in decades," gushes a woman named Giselle. "Only he can save us." He is, she insists, the only one in the entire country who is doing something for normal people like the ones gathered here in front of the theater, people who work and pay taxes. "Italy has been sold out. We used to manufacture, but now we have landed in poverty," Giselle says.

A woman in a well-worn T-shirt and a face full of worries joins the conversation with her daughter. "We're hungry," says Pina. She says she works six days a week as a landscaper for the city and receives a net salary of just 500 euros per month. Her husband is chronically ill, she says, her son is unemployed, and her daughter-in-law is pregnant. "They are all depending on me," the 51-year-old says. "But I was last paid in early August."

Then comes Francesco Perrone, a pensioner. "God gave this region everything," he says, the beauty, the black truffle and the bergamot lemon. But the politicians have taken it all away, he says, adding that the people of Calabria want to finally be able to believe in something again. "When Salvini comes, then he is God." Inside the theater, the crowd begins to sing as the man himself finally takes the stage. "I give you my word to send this government back home as quickly as possible," he calls out to his fans, and then begins inveighing against traitors, amateurs and idiots in the cabinet.

Italy has a hot summer behind it. Matteo Salvini, 46, wanted to become prime minister, but he stumbled over his own vanity and his erroneous belief that he could take the top political job by storm. Lega, the right-wing populist party he leads, crashed out of government and the country is now led by a coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Social Democrats.

Illigitimate Coalition of Fear

Now, the Lega chief is working tirelessly on his comeback from the opposition. He has been touring through the country for weeks, from Cosenza to Genoa, from Milan to Bologna and Naples, often making three or four appearances in a single day. All the while, he is filming video spots for Facebook, giving television interviews and making visits to prison guards or fishermen.

A key milestone on Salvini's comeback trail came on Saturday, with a far-right rally in Rome labeled "Italy Pride," intended as a protest against the current government. Many on the left compared the event to the 1922 "March on Rome," that paved the way for the Mussolini-led fascist power-grab in October 1922.

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When Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte presented his new cabinet in early September, he spoke of a victory for parliamentary democracy. The constitution and Italian state institutions had worked, he said, while the president and parliament had conscientiously fulfilled their tasks. Snap elections had been avoided and the danger of an anti-EU, nationalist government led by Lega had been averted for the time being. That, at least, is the view from the left and center.

But Salvini and his followers feel cheated and refer to the new government as an illegitimate coalition of fear that is wary of holding elections. "Palazzi versus Piazze," is their slogan, the government palaces against the will of the people on the public squares. The people versus the politicians: It is the same conflict claimed by populists in Washington, London, Berlin and elsewhere. But this one has a uniquely Italian bit of flair, with Salvini blowing kisses even to the loudest left-wing counterdemonstrators.

Salvini's fall from power has done nothing to pacify the country, as it continues to go through something of a political stress test, with the outcome still unclear. The atmosphere is tense, with every rubber boat from North Africa that makes landfall on the Italian coast, every rescue ship that charts a course for Lampedusa, every negative economic indicator heaping pressure on the new government. In part because Salvini doesn't miss a single opportunity to immediately go on the attack.

Back on The European Playing Field

In mid-September, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier met in Rome's Quirinal Palace with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella and the two celebrated the reconciliation of two partners who had been estranged for over a year. The relief they felt could be seen in every gesture. It was Mattarella who, in rapid consultations, paved the way for M5S to drop Lega as a coalition partner and replace the populists with the Social Democrats. Those opposed to Lega believe that the Italian president didn't just prevent new elections, but potentially also a crash of the euro and the development of a leader-cult surrounding Salvini. Steinmeier thanked Mattarella, saying he was happy "that Italy is back on the European playing field."

Neither of them mentioned Salvini by name, but he is nonetheless omnipresent. Party strategists are constantly following the former interior minister's public opinion poll numbers. Did he do permanent damage to his career with his failed August power grab? Or will he become stronger than ever as he goes on the attack against an unstable government?

Thus far, no clear answer has emerged. His personal popularity numbers have dropped slightly, but at 33 percent support, Lega remains Italy's most favored party. Were elections to be held now, a Salvini-led right-wing alliance would receive about the same amount of support as the current governing coalition. Everything depends on which side gets a leg up on the two most important questions currently facing the country: the refugee issue and the economic crisis.

In Genoa, Lega has set up a huge tent on Piazza della Vittoria and two politicians from the party are warming up the crowd, shouting "close the ports!" and "Italians first!" Suddenly, the crowd grows restive: Matteo Salvini has arrived.

Elderly women being screaming as they rush toward him like teenagers at a pop concert. The entire tent begins cheering, smartphones are held high to get a picture and endless Matteo chants interrupt the diatribes from the Lega politicians onstage.

A Bit Less Freakshow

Then, finally, the "Capitano," as his supporters call him, begins speaking. Salvini seems more moderate and more relaxed since he left the government -- a bit more mainstream and a bit less freakshow. The kitschy opera aria that frequently accompanies his entrances is missing on this evening. He isn't waving a rosary, there is no greeting to Mother Mary and he also doesn't inveigh against the "Gypsies."

He starts by entertaining his audience like a comedian would, making fun of the most recent proposals from Rome with a well-practiced line: The leftists have come up with another one of their plans! His standard response is "buonsenso," or "common sense." And it pretty much always works, whether he is talking about opening ports to refugees, higher fuel taxes for poor farmers or new taxes on mineral water. "If they weren't in the government, their behavior would be funny and I could laugh at it," Salvini says. It's always the same punchline and it always refers to the heavily burdened, hamstrung Italians, allegedly in the grip of foreign interests and forced over the years to pay for the confused ideas of the leftists.

At times, Salvini seems like a therapist for an enormous self-help group that goes beyond the people in the tent in Genoa and -- thanks to Facebook Video -- includes the entire country. He lets his followers know that he is there for them, that he is listening. Consolation and healing are an integral part of this strategy. "Have patience, have faith," he calls out. "And I urge you: When you are insulted, respond with a smile."

When his declamation comes to an end, he throws candy into the crowd before the selfie ritual begins. His followers wait in line for up to two hours for their five-seconds with the Salvini, enough time for a photo and the briefest moment of longed for attention.

It only took a few years for Salvini to transform Lega into the largest party in the country. When he became party chairman in late 2013, Lega was only polling at 4 percent. But in May elections for European Parliament, the party raked in 34 percent of the vote, far ahead of M5S, the Social Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi, the former right-wing superstar. This rapid rise partially explains why he is so venerated by his followers.

On the morning after Salvini's appearance in Genoa, Marco Campomenosi is sitting in the empty Lega tent. He is friends with Salvini and says that they frequently spent vacations together here in the Liguria region of northwestern Italy. In European Parliament, the two were a team, with Salvini the member of parliament and Campomenosi his assistant. That was almost 15 years ago.

Deep Connection

"Matteo has hardly changed at all. He has this unbelievable ability to develop a direct and deep connection with people," says Campomenosi, who has since become a European parliamentarian in his own right and is head of the Lega party group in Strasbourg. "If that's what it means to be a populist, then it is a wonderful thing."

As he explains it, the Salvini System works as follows: In the background is the party leadership, the social media team ("the beast") and a network of provincial governors and mayors from Lega. They continually supply their "frontman" with a "fotografia" of the country or their region, essentially a briefing on the mood and the important issues being discussed on the street and in the social media channels.

Using that material and relying on his constant conversations with Italian voters, Salvini uses gut instinct to more or less spontaneously come up with talking points and slogans. Meanwhile, the Lega party apparatus uses analyses to outline political initiatives. "We propose short-term targets that can be reached within six months," Campomenosi says. They're not interested in projects that will only bear fruit three years down the line.

In other words, it isn't the kind of politics practiced by the traditional parties. "Salvini could now say: We want to become the establishment," says Campomenosi. "But then we would be making the same mistake as the Five Star Movement, which demanded change but has now adapted itself to the establishment."

Lega is difficult to grasp. As soon as things get too quiet or harmonious, Salvini will throw out the next provocation from the stage or on social media. In interviews, leading Lega politicians, by contrast, consistently present themselves as cool-headed conservatives who are primarily interested in stimulating the economy and creating jobs. The contrast with Salvini's rhetoric is significant.

Black and White

Gian Marco Centinaio was agriculture minister until early September and he has known Salvini for many years. "He says from the stage the same things that people are saying on the street," he says. "Italy is not able to take in all of Africa."

The governing coalition with the Five Star Movement did not collapse as a result of refugee policy, he says. "The migrant debate took place primarily on television, not in the cabinet," says Centinaio. His party, he continues, had wanted to reform the judiciary, push through tax cuts and cut red tape. And they wanted to ensure that young Italians stopped leaving the country in frustration. M5S, he says, blocked a lot of their proposals.

Those who want to move forward versus those who stand in the way: Salvini and his people have ultimately reduced the conflicts in their coalition with M5S down to this black-and-white formula. And they have been so successful that facts and nuance have lost their importance and Lega is now polling better than M5S in all surveys.

When Centinaio first met Salvini, the old parties were still around, like the Christian Democrats and the Communists. "Today, we are the oldest party in the country," says Centinaio, but Italy has changed, as has Lega itself.

Salvini radically transformed the autonomy movement rooted in the wealthy north, bringing to an end its attacks on the poor and allegedly lazy south. That was the essential first step toward the goal that is even part of the party logo: "Salvini Premier." The European Union and migrants became the new scapegoats. Today, his platform calls for greater freedoms for the economically strong region between Venice, Milan and Turin along with massive investment in the south.

Watching Closely

Since the 2018 parliamentary elections, Lega together with its coalition partners have won every regional election in the country, from the Abruzzo mountains in the southeast to Piemont in the northwest. This Sunday's vote in Umbria will be the first electoral test following the collapse of the Lega-M5S coalition, followed by Emilia-Romagna and Toscana, all of them strongholds of the Social Democrats, which Salvini attacks on an almost daily basis.

His opponents are keeping a close eye on each step he takes, even as they are trying to marginalize both him and his issues. But they have copied his methods, his social media strategy and his presence on the street. Like in early October, when the Social Democrats called for rallies on thousands of public squares across the country under the slogan: "For the Love of Italy." It was a kind of countermove to the "March on Rome" that Salvini held on Saturday.

That clash over where the country should be headed was also on display on the evening of Salvini's visit to Cosenza in Calabria. Not far from the theater, left-wing activists have gathered for a noisy protest, while inside, the audience is cheering boisterously for their "Capitano."

Francesco Perrone, the pensioner, is standing out front with all of those who couldn't get a spot in the theater and watching the spectacle with interest. "Left or right, most of the people here couldn't care less," he ultimately says. "They just want things to get better."

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