Italy’s Separatist Leader Has His Eye on the Prime Minister’s Office

Matteo Salvini doesn’t care much for political correctness and prefers to house refugees on abandoned offshore oil platforms — until they’re deported.

Saviona Mane
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Italy's Northern League chief Matteo Salvini at a news conference in Brussels, June 16, 2015.Credit: AP

The new rising star in Italian politics is named Matteo Salvini. He is young, determined, charismatic and the leader of the separatist, isolationist and right-wing Northern League party (Lega Nord).

Less than two years ago, when he was elected party leader, he was almost unknown. Today, it’s hard to find a news broadcast or talk show without him, a newspaper that doesn’t quote him, or a political issue he’s not asked about. His answers are usually blunt.

In his view, the mass inflow of refugees to Italy is an “organized invasion” and a “genocide attempt,” while the euro currency is a “crime against humanity.” And he proposes to “flatten with bulldozers” the Roma encampments on city outskirts. As for the minister who proposed raising the retirement age, he recommends that Italy “exile her to a desert island in the Pacific Ocean.” Salvini doesn’t give a damn about being politically correct.

The 42-year-old uses his provocative and populist style to convince the Italians, who are fed up with their four governments in four years, that he is not only the leader of a party that wants to establish the state of Padania in the country’s industrialized north, but also he’s the alternative to the current center-left government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

After seven years of economic doldrums, spreading corruption, the growing stream of migrants and increasing fears of Islamic terror, Salvini is apparently doing just what he intended to do. Polls conducted at the end of June showed that Salvini’s support has climbed over the past two years, and not only in the north. It has reached 36 percent — similar to the support for Renzi.

Italian soldiers patrol the main entrance of the Duomo gothic cathedral in Milan, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015.Credit: AP

The Northern League, which was on the verge of implosion before Salvini was elected chief in December 2013, is now the third strongest in the polls with almost 16 percent of the vote. That tops the party led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

“The rise of the Lega and its leader can be attributed to a number of factors,” Dario Di Vico, a senior journalist at the daily Corriere della Sera, told Haaretz. “First of all is the abandonment of the traditional separatism in favor of national politics, the problems of the center-right in reorganizing after the Berlusconi era, and the intelligent use of television and social networks.”
Salvini hopes to fill the vacuum created in the center-right by Berlsconi’s downfall, but to do that he needs the votes of the camp’s moderate middle class, the base of Berlusconi’s power. And Salvini is having a hard time doing this.

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.Credit: Reuters

“He abandoned his party’s traditional and stable base in the north in favor of a national support base, but this is very fluid and unstable support,” Di Vico says. “I think he has reached the peak of his power and can only go down from here.”

Professional student

Salvini was born in Milan on March 9, 1973, to a middle-class family; he is divorced and has a son and daughter from two different relationships. At age 17 he joined the Northern League and after finishing high school he studied history at the University of Milan — where he was registered for 16 years. “Free Padania will arise before I finish my degree,” he joked in 2008 in an interview with Corriere della Sera.

Before entering politics, he was a journalist with a number of publications linked to the separatist movement. In public appearances, Salvini speaks in a populist style, showing he’s one of the people. He ostensibly cares about the daily problems of the ordinary citizen; he’s for the good of all Italy.

And unlike right-wing conservative groups, he’s open to gay rights. Last December he caused a sensation when he appeared on the cover of the news magazine Oggi shirtless and between the sheets. He was only wearing a green tie — the color of his party.

His popularity is apparent not only in the opinion polls but on television and radio talk shows. For example, on the Rai 3 government TV channel, Salvini called for an end to the refugee waves. When he said that Italy “cannot pretend to empty the African continent,” the applause was fervent.  

“Salvini’s formula is based on a personalization of politics and the adoption of extreme overtones with two key terms at the center: xenophobia and no to the euro,” Di Vico says.

It’s no accident that Salvini has made the untrammeled refugee wave his battle cry. The media provides nonstop coverage of the thousands arriving on Italy’s shores, the government’s problems in dealing with them and the public’s mood on the topic. There’s also the ferment in a number of communities they are sent to, which has in certain cases led to violence.

Surviving immigrants lie on the deck of the Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour April 20, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Salvini is pushing two main messages: He is aware of the people’s distress and Italians come first. He attacks the “fourth-world 70-percent” tax burden, the raising of the retirement age and the bureaucratic distortions of taxing homes that were destroyed by earthquakes. At the same time, he draws a connection between the refugees and the people’s daily problems.

“Every migrant who reaches Italy receives 40 euros a day from the government, while a disabled Italian citizen receives 10 euros,” he said in a Mediaset television interview a year ago. But Salvini forgot to mention that much of the funding for the migrants comes from the European Union.

In August, the EU announced it would grant Italy 560 million euros of the 2.4 billion euros allocated for dealing with immigration. But in a corrupt system like Italy’s, the question is how much of this money will go toward the migrants, and how much will make its way to unknown pockets.

Last week, the EU published figures showing the number of refugees who reached Europe in July — most came to Italy and Greece. The number was about 107,000, three times that of a year earlier.

Salvini, who says most of the migrants reaching Italy are not fleeing wars and persecution, called last week for Italy to accept only Christian refugees and to send the rest back. He proposes housing them temporarily on abandoned oil-drilling platforms, until deportation.  

His positions on immigration have stirred harsh criticism. One arrow has come from an unexpected direction: the Catholic Church. In June, Pope Francis said people and institutions that close their doors to refugees were committing “an act of war” and called for Christian compassion. In August, the secretary general of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, spoke out against “cheap square peddlers willing to say incredibly inane things just to get a vote.”

Salvini got the hints and hit back against anyone “who justifies the illegal invasion that is destroying Italy, either does not understand it or profits from it.” He called for a “free church in a free country and let the bishops leave us alone.”

Di Vico says Salvini erred in his attack on the church. “A center-right that wants to win does not bicker with the church,” he says.

Mussolini on hand

Another mistake is Salvini’s flirtation with CasaPound Italy, a small neofascist movement that has declared Salvini its leader. It has taken part in his rallies, and invited him on its stage. The presence of CasaPound members particularly stood out at a February rally in Rome in which pictures of Mussolini appeared.

“In the era of Umberto Bossi this wouldn’t have happened,” Di Vico says, referring to the legendary founder of the separatist party. “The Lega he headed was antifascist and never would have gone down into the square with CasaPound.” Still, Di Vico says that though Salvini may be a xenophobe,  he’s not a neofascist.

In July, Salvini and the leader of France’s National Front party, Marine Le Pen, completed establishing Europe of Nations and Freedom, a grouping in the European Parliament that opposes immigration and links the extreme right Eurosceptic parties in Brussels. The group is composed of EU parliamentarians from eight countries: the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Poland, Romania, Britain, Italy and France.

“Salvini has become a central figure in Italian politics very quickly,” said Le Pen in a May interview with the Italian news weekly L’Espresso. “He is smart and levelheaded, and is different from the caricature they’re trying to make.”  

The strong ties between these two leaders and parties, and the flirtation with CasaPound, have drawn criticism from Italy’s Jewish community. Some came last year when Salvini announced his intention to run for mayor of Milan in 2016, a decision he has since reversed. The then-head of Rome’s Jewish community, Ricardo Pacifici, said that if the burgeoning alliance with Le Pen took place, the Northern League would become Europe’s first party to adopt xenophobic and racist policies à la the National Front.
Salvini replied that he “is proud to be an ally of a pacifist democrat and winner such as Le Pen to stop clandestinity and Islamic extremism that Pacifici should be afraid of.”

Pacifici’s successor, Ruth Dureghello, has also criticized the Northern League’s immigration policies and its relations with CasaPound, saying these policies are dangerous. “The League is mistaken when it hides behind the culture of fear of the other,” she said. “And the walking hand in hand with those who describe themselves as fascists of the third millennium is like adopting an ideology whose source is dictatorship.”

In the Italy of 2015, such relations could very well be an obstacle for Salvini and damage his political future. If he really does aspire to conquer the leadership of the center-right and is eyeing the prime minster’s office, he’ll probably have to distance himself from his neofascist, racist and anti-Semitic friends in CasaPound. He’ll also have to give a wide berth to the people in his own party calling for “Italy for the Italians; Africans and Jews out.”

Salvini preferred not to be interviewed for this article.