Posted on June 15, 2018

Matteo Salvini: From Far-Right Fringe Player to Strongman Leader

Stephanie Kirchgaessner, The Guardian, June 15, 2018

Matteo Salvini is unofficially assuming the role of prime minister of Italy after a week in which a standoff over stranded migrants and a row with France has bolstered the interior minister’s profile and created the appearance he is setting the country’s agenda.

The transformation of Salvini from far-right fringe candidate to popular strongman leader could have vast implications for the future of Italy, its role in Europe and the fragile alliance that now governs the country.

His popularity has increased by about 10 percentage points since the 4 March election, which resulted in a hung parliament with his party, the League, placed second in terms of seats.

But its current 27% approval rating puts Salvini on equal footing with Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the largest party, who serves as a minister of labour and industry in the coalition government.

It has also won him admiration from the biggest cheerleader in support of far-right populist movements in Europe. “He stepped up and took some pretty dramatic action. I don’t think it could have turned out better for him,” said Steve Bannon, the former adviser to US president Donald Trump who has spent time in Italy and been a vociferous supporter of the far-right surge.

Analysts say Salvini’s rise reflects the fact that he is a skilled politician and is competing for attention against Giuseppe Conte, the law professor who was plucked out of obscurity and named prime minister after Salvini and Di Maio agreed neither of them would assume the role, but who is seen as weak.

Salvini, a former talk radio host, has made a career out of demonising migrants. He made good on his campaign promise to crack down on irregular migration this week when, in his first major decision as interior minister, he blocked an NGO ship, the Aquarius, with more than 600 migrants on board from docking in Sicily.

While the decision created a humanitarian crisis – Spain ultimately agreed to accept the migrants in Valencia – Salvini celebrated it as a big victory. When Italy’s refusal to accept the migrants elicited a sharp rebuke from Emmanuel Macron, the French president, it was seen among Italians as a deeply hypocritical response, given France’s reluctance to accept migrants and refugees.

“There is a void in Palazzo Chigi [the prime minister’s residence] so of course this means that other figures will become more visible,” said Giovanni Orsina, a political historian. “Salvini knows how it works. He has got personality, a political education, and a very clear ideology.”

Stopping the Aquarius migrant vessel, Orsina said, had cost Salvini nothing, and the fight with Macron, even for those Italians who do not support the League, has garnered him even more support given the Italian view that the rest of the EU, and especially France, have left the country to deal with the migrant crisis on its own.

“Many Italians will say they are not with Salvini but that against the French they are with him, because they will say that what Macron said is false, hypocritical, unbearable,” Orsina said. It was also possible that Salvini – like Matteo Renzi before him – could ride a wave of popularity that collapses, much like the former centre-left prime minister did, he said.

Bannon, speaking to the Guardian, said he believed that Salvini had done a “great job” by taking on the issue of migration in the first weeks of the new government.

“Particularly since it is the summer and the crisis is only going to continue. And he showed the complete hypocrisy of Macron, and I think it is important for the people of Italy to see that he is willing to stand up,” Bannon said. “It is a central part of why Macron is going to crash and burn, he’s all big talk.”

For migrants who were rescued by the Aquarius, the decision led to even more hardship. The boat is not expected to arrive in Valencia until Saturday or Sunday, and there are multiple accounts that those onboard, who include children, are suffering intense seasickness. Their journey to Spain has also been interrupted by poor weather, and legal experts have accused Italy of breaking international humanitarian rules.

Flavio Di Giacomo, the spokesman for the UN migration agency, the IOM, said it was not the first time that a boat had been blocked from entering Italy. “What has changed is that this time the public opinion is backing this kind of action, which in part is because the anti-NGO narrative has won in the public opinion,” said Di Giacomo.

Salvini, and other Italian politicians, have argued that NGOs who rescue migrants represent a “pull factor”, encouraging African economic migrants to make the journey across the Mediterranean. But many migration experts have argued that poor conditions are forcing migrants to flee, and that the NGOs are saving lives.

Within a government that has a share of eclectic personalities, including an undersecretary who believes the moon landing was a hoax, Salvini has stood out in part by setting the agenda in a way that focuses on issues he has control over.

“He is making migration the most important issue of the country, and then it follows that the minister who handles migration is the most important leader,” said Sergio Fabbrini at Luiss University. “The Five Star Movement is without an agenda, without a strategy.”