Communist, Separatist, Nationalist: What You Need to Know About Italian Strongman Matteo Salvini

Here are some must-know facts about Rome's anti-immigrant deputy PM, the latest populist leader to be hosted by Israel

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini speaks to the media at the Senate in Rome, Italy, November 6, 2018.
\ Remo Casilli/ REUTERS

Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister and interior minister, is the latest in a parade of right-wing populist leaders who have visited Israel and have been warmly welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Salvini, who is set to visit Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday, is known for the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic policies he has promoted since he was catapulted to power by elections last spring. He has strong ties with other European and international populist politicians, but has also marketed his own brand of homegrown right-wing nationalism. Here are few must-know facts about him and his meteoric rise to political power:

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Separatist roots

Salvini, 45, was born in Milan into a well-to-do family. After flirting with communism in his youth, he joined the Northern League party, a movement that advocated the separation of Italy's prosperous north from the country's poorer and underdeveloped south.

Since rising to lead the League in 2013, he has transformed it from a party that capitalized on the hostility of northern Italians toward their southern neighbors into a party that capitalizes on nationwide hostility toward immigrants and EU policies, seen by supporters as sources of crime and Italy's economic ills, respectively.

Fascist connection?

Pledging to put "Italians first" and "cleanse" Italy of illegal migrants, "by force if necessary," Salvini won 17 percent of the vote in March elections,  allowing the League to enter into an uneasy "grand coalition" of populists with the 5 Star Movement, the grassroots anti-establishment party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo.

Salvini is now Italy's most popular politician, and polls suggest the League would take more than 30 percent of the vote if elections were held today.
While the League itself doesn't have fascist roots, many small neo-fascist parties have expressed support for Salvini and many of his rallies are well-attended by militants of these movements, sporting fascist symbols and portraits of Benito Mussolini. A savvy communicator, Salvini has often nodded to this sector of supporters by citing Il Duce's sayings and claiming that fascism had many positive achievements.

Divisive policies

Since becoming interior minister, Salvini has been criticized at home and abroad for his hardline policies on migrants. He has barred ships that rescued migrants at sea from docking at Italian ports.

A recent law that he pushed through Parliament, nicknamed the "Salvini decree", introduced tough new measures such as abolishing humanitarian protection for migrants not eligible for refugee status and resulted in dozens of vulnerable people being kicked out of state-run centers for migrants.

Salvini also made headlines by proposing to make a census of Roma people (also known as Gypsies) and expelling those without Italian citizenship. The plan was condemned by rights groups and by Italy's Jewish community, which saw eerie parallels with the anti-Semitic legislation enacted by Mussolini's regime in 1938. 

Viva Trump, Viva Putin 

Salvini once summed up his international political links by tweeting: “Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva Le Pen,” referring to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, a key ally for the League in the European Parliament. 

The League has forged official ties with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and Salvini has praised the Russian president's strongman policies and criticized EU sanctions on Moscow. He is equally admiring of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the "legality and security" the he feels his policies will bring to Americans.

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Salvini met with Trump's former advisor Steve Bannon earlier this year and has been among the first to join Bannon's "The Movement," which aims to group together Europe's populist parties ahead of EU parliament elections next year.

Social media star

The rotund and smiling Salvini owes much of his success to his informal, approachable style and massive social media presence. He has been named as the European politician with the largest following on social media and regularly tweets about his policies, publishes selfies from rallies and meetings, alongside pictures of tiramisu, spaghetti and other favorite dishes.

He openly rows with his critics online: Last week he sparred with former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, who had panned his policies on Twitter,  and he was recently criticized for publishing the photos of three underage protesters and exposing them to online abuse by his fans.     

Salvini's social media stardom has also been a source of gaffes and embarrassing moments. Last month, his girlfriend, TV personality Elisa Isoardi, broke up with him by publishing an intimate selfie of the couple on Instagram.

Last week, Salvini was also excoriated by prosecutors for tweeting about a police raid against an organized crime group before it happened, possibly helping some of the suspects escape arrest.

'Brother of Israel'

While some core supporters of the League have been friendly to the Palestinian cause, mainly because of the party's past independentism, Salvini has displayed a strong pro-Israel vein in recent years.

He has called himself a “friend and brother of Israel” and visited the country in 2016, meeting with Knesset members and condemning Hamas for “holding hostage” millions of Israelis and Palestinians.

On the other hand, Salvini has not shied away from conspiracy theories tinged with anti-Semitism, such as the familiar accusation that Jewish-American billionaire George Soros supports illegal immigration into Europe.