After COVID-19: will Matteo Salvini lead Europe’s radical right?

Salvini’s showcasing of religious devotion and rhetoric about the pandemic are part of a political strategy aimed at taking over the reigns of power.

Matteo Salvini, 26 March, 2020 | Picture by Samantha Zucchi /Insidefoto/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Unlike the Rassemblement National (RN), formerly Front National, in France, the radical populist right in Italy has largely managed to hold on to its electorate. In early April, Matteo Salvini’s Lega still polled a bit over 30%, significantly more than any other party. And this despite the fact that in Italy, unlike France, a significant majority of the public expressed confidence in the executive’s work (61% for Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, 56% for his administration). Not to mention the ignominious end of the populist Lega/Cinque Stelle coalition government in August 2019, provoked by Salvini’s calling of a vote of no confidence. At the time, Salvini speculated the dissolution of the government would usher in new elections. New elections would put the Lega in a position to form a new government headed by Salvini. Things did not pan out as expected. Cinque Stelle found a new coalition partner in the socialist left. Giuseppe Conte regained his position, this time heading a center-left coalition, leaving the Lega in the proverbial rain.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, appears to have substantially reshuffled the political cards. To be sure, the botched no-confidence vote cost the Lega a few percentage points in the polls. But the losses have proved to be only temporary. A few weeks ago, Matteo Salvini was almost completely sidelined. With the crisis, he has returned to center stage.

All things considered, the Lega has been one of the winners of the crisis, as has been the socialist left – and the far right. The far right, that’s Fratelli d’Italia, successor to Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale (AN), once a coalition partner, together with the Lega Nord, of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which, in turn, was the successor to Italy’s postwar neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). Alleanza Nazionale was the result of a clean break with Italy’s fascist past. Fratelli d’Italia has no such qualms. The party is led by Giorgia Meloni, who started her political career in the youth organization of the MSI, joined AN and advanced to be appointed Minister of Youth under Berlusconi. Disenchanted with AN, she founded a new party, which attracted a range of right-wing politicians from both AN and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. In the European elections of 2019, Fratelli d’Italia received 6.5 percent of the vote; by the beginning of April 2010, polls had them at around 12 percent, closing in on Cinque Stelle.

Politically, or so the polls suggest, the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in a profound polarization of the Italian political spectrum, reminiscent of what has been happening in the United States. By now, there are two equally strong blocs confronting each other. In the past, the political heart of the right was Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI). Today, FI has lost much of its political luster, garnering hardly more than five percent in the polls. FI has been replaced by the Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi by Matteo Salvini. Salvini’s Lega and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia make up the “hard core” of Italy’s opposition. At the height of his power, Berlusconi was largely dismissed by his fellow European colleagues as a caricature of a statesman – a Witzfigur [laughingstock] as they say in German, an amusing lightweight not to be taken too seriously. Today, in the face of Salvini/Melino, most of Italy’s partners in the EU are likely to feel a bit nostalgic looking back at the days when Berlusconi was the strong man on the Italian right.

Salvini is no Berlusconi. The latter was known as Il cavaliere [the knight]. Against that, Salvini is a “man of the people,” or at least, that’s how he projects himself in the media. And the media, independent of political couleur, have been more than willing to offer him a platform. Salvini’s political ancestor, Umberto Bossi, the iconic founder of the Lega Nord, was known for his crude diction (Le Lega ce l’ha duro), outrageous statements (taking out the “Kalashnikov” and “mitra” i.e., submachine guns), and vacuous threats (most importantly, if no federalism then secession). With Salvini, the Lega has found a leader who easily matches his famous predecessor, particularly with respect to his strident, aggressive rhetoric, hyperbole and intentional fibs (bufale, in Italian).

Under Umberto Bossi, the Lega Nord was a political movement that voiced and reflected the grievances and ressentiments of large parts of the northern most parts of the country, from Piemonte in the west to Veneto in the east. These are the most productive, most industrialized, most innovative and most affluent regions in Italy. The Lega Nord mobilized widespread northern resentment against the political class in Rome charged with “steeling” (Roma ladrona – Rome the big thief) part of the wealth generated in the north (via the tax system) in order to buy electoral support in the south. Under Salvini, the Lega abandoned its northern focus and turned into a pan-Italian party, extending its appeal across the whole of the national territory, including the center and south. If in the past, the party’s core nativist message had been “northerners first”, the new slogan is “Italians first (Prima gli italiani).”

Dr Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.

© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

This article was originally published at CARR’s media partner, Open Democracy. See the original article here.