Who is Matteo Salvini?
JOB: Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Italy
REPUTATION: Refugee Drowner-in-Chief
Matteo Salvini sure is an ambitious guy. Not everyone sets themselves the task of ‘saving’ European values (even civilization) from the barbarian hoards storming across the Mediterranean. Kudos also for his courage in standing up to the Brussels Bunker (EU headquarters) whose weak-kneed humanitarian policies are undermining said values.
Salvini is playing a long game – he is just 45 years old and started small with few obvious missteps to become Italy’s most influential politician. These days his ambitions go beyond Italian borders as he and his buddy Jean-Marie Le Pen position themselves as leaders of Europe’s Far-Right neo-nationalist movement. They are making common cause with xenophobic autocrats in Eastern Europe (Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland). Salvini is bluntly optimistic, stating: ‘Changing Europe is a big goal but it is at our fingertips’, and is making noises about running to be Chair of the European Commission.
Salvini, son of a Milanese business executive, cut his political teeth first as a grassroots youth activist. He then became an MEP with the Lombardy-based Northern League, whose main plank championed the ‘productive’ north against the ‘lazy welfare-ridden’ Italian south. As his status grew, Salvini managed to shift the orientation of the flagging League from a disgruntled regional party to the ‘Lega’ – a generic rightwing populist force attracting votes from all Italians. Now, ‘the zeros’ (Salvini’s favourite insult) are no longer from Sicily, Regio Calabria and Naples but are desperate migrants seeking the relative safety of Europe. He kicked off his barbed-wire immigration policy with the impossible promise that he would expel 500,000 migrants. Next, all mosques would be shut down. Despite dramatically falling migrant numbers, his Steve Bannon-inspired cry of ‘Italians First’ continues to draw crowds of the disaffected.
Once he became leader of the Lega, Salvini got his chance in the 2018 elections at a point when Italians across the political spectrum were frustrated beyond measure with the country’s traditional political elite and mainstream parties. The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) finished first with almost a third of the vote, but the Lega managed a respectable 17.69 per cent – becoming the leading force on the Italian Right. Salvini lured the M5S and their hapless leader Luigi di Maio into a governmental alliance and grabbed the key Interior Ministry job as well as the Deputy Prime Minister position. Since then it’s been all Salvini. While the M5S try desperately to find room for their Citizen’s Income (an inadequate Universal Basic Income) in the debt-restricted Italian budget, [Salvini] is all nationalist – posturing against immigrants and Brussels bureaucrats which costs nothing. It’s hard to see what the two parties have in common (aside from anti-EU rhetoric), with Salvini promising pro-business tax cuts and di Maio desperate to extend promised social support to the precarious M5S base of unemployed youth and disenfranchised Southerners. According to veteran Italian sociologist Domenico De Masi: ‘The Lega will eat them up. The most Right-leaning voters will switch to Salvini. Those of the Left will tend to flee.’
Salvini is an adept user of social media – moving from demonizing refugees, Roma people and political opponents to letting people know what’s for his dinner or how his love life is going. This ‘selfie politics’ of artificial intimacy is based on 3.4 million Facebook followers and 900,000 on both Twitter and Instagram. When he very publicly split up with his journalist girlfriend, one follower comforted him: ‘Your true woman is Italy, she will be faithful and grateful!’ Indeed, Italians have shown a high tolerance for self-absorbed Far-Right politicians dating back to Mussolini and more recently the annoying Silvio Berlusconi (possibly the model for Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu). If European values include democracy, equality and tolerance, Salvini is dead set on undermining not protecting them.
LOW CUNNING: Salvini is an expert at being all things to all Italians, moving effortlessly from crisp white shirts and tailored blue suits when mixing with the media or corporate high-flyers, to jeans and green sneakers when strutting the popular stage.
SENSE OF HUMOUR: Crude and hypocritical. Salvini once brought an inflatable sex doll to a political rally to represent a woman opponent. At the same time he makes admiring remarks about Vladimir Putin for ‘promoting traditional family values’ in Russia.
Sources: The Guardian; Wikipedia; Il Manifesto; Politico; euractiv.com; Foreign Policy; Euronews; Time; Jacobin; New York Times; The Telegraph; openmigration.org