As markets began to tremble at his probable rise to power in Italy on a populist, Eurosceptic platform this week, Matteo Salvini turned to his political weapon of choice to fight back. He pulled out his smartphone and shot a Facebook Live video, unleashing a torrent of disdain and defiance that would attract nearly 1.5m viewers. Mr Salvini warned that any “insults”, “threats” and “ blackmail” from global finance and EU bureaucrats would only embolden him.
“There’s concern in Europe, there’s concern in Washington, there’s concern in Berlin, there’s concern in Paris,” he said. “If they’re worried, it means we are doing something right.”
Italy’s general election in March marked the country’s biggest political upheaval in a generation, as voters rebelled against traditional, centrist pro-EU parties and delivered two insurgent winners who ran as rivals during the campaign. One was the anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by Luigi Di Maio, a polished 31-year-old Neapolitan. The second was the far-right League led by Mr Salvini, a 45-year-old Milanese rebel who prefers T-shirts, sweatshirts and puffa jackets to elegant suits and overcoats. After weeks of stalemate, the two parties struck a deal on Friday to govern together.
Mr Salvini is now the ascendant force on the Italian right. In polls conducted before the election, the League was expected to garner about 14 per cent of the national vote; it won 17 per cent. This month, support for the party soared well above 20 per cent.
Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Milan, Mr Salvini developed sympathy for the political fringes fairly early on. At 17, he joined the Northern League, a small secessionist party based in the region surrounding Milan that was pushing for fiscal autonomy from Rome — as a first step towards independence from Italy itself. He also frequented the Leoncavallo, a notorious cultural centre and hotbed of radical leftwing politics in Milan. Later, though, Mr Salvini insisted he only went to “chat, drink beer and listen to music”.
After high school, he enrolled in a political science course at university, before switching to history. He did not finish his studies, however, and never sought full-time work. Politics was his passion, and by the time he was 20, he had become a city councillor in Milan, where he represented the party’s communist faction.
His big breakthrough came in 1997, when he was asked to run Radio Padania, the party’s official radio station. “That’s where he cultivated his capacity to communicate,” says Alessandro Franzi, co-author of an ebook about Mr Salvini entitled The Militant. “The idea was to open the microphones to citizens so they could complain. That . . . gave a voice to the same people with whom he speaks on Facebook now.”
There was one crucial difference between then and now, however. At the time, Mr Salvini’s ire was directed not at Brussels, but at Rome and southern Italians more generally, which, in the then Northern League’s view, were the source of corruption and criminality that menaced the prosperity of hard-working northerners. One of his shows was called Mai dire Italia (“Never say Italy”). In 1999, he refused to shake hands with Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Italy’s president. “No thank you, doctor. You do not represent me,” Mr Salvini said. And in 2011, he boycotted the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, carrying his desk outside Milan’s town hall to prove that he was working instead.
As Italy was hit by a devastating recession and debt crisis, support for the League plummeted. In 2013, after the party won just 4 per cent of the vote in the general election, Mr Salvini was elected leader. He believed that the only way the League could survive was if it morphed into a traditional far-right nationalist party.
He dropped the attacks on southern Italians and reserved his scorn for Europe. He increasingly aligned himself with Marine Le Pen in France and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
The migration crisis — which has seen more than 600,000 people rescued in the Mediterranean and brought to Italian ports in the past four years — fuelled Mr Salvini’s rise. Keeping up a constant drumbeat of xenophobic rhetoric, he tapped into growing discontent with the new arrivals.
Aside from his positions, the secret of Mr Salvini’s appeal lies in his ability to persuade voters that he feels their pain. “He’s extremely simple; he says what he means,” says Marco Zanni, an Italian member of the European Parliament for the League. “He loves being with people, he doesn’t love the traditional mechanisms of politics, and he doesn’t care about money, nice cars or nice houses.”
Although Mr Salvini has maintained his bluster as the negotiations with Five Star reached a climax, people who have seen him say he is far less aggressive in private. Giulio Sapelli, a professor who taught Mr Salvini, met him recently. “He was calm, but very conscious of the responsibility he had,” he said. A diplomat who described a meeting Mr Salvini had with Lewis Eisenberg, the US ambassador in Rome, said he was relatively quiet, as Giancarlo Giorgetti, his top adviser, did most of the talking.
In public, however, Mr Salvini continues to pound away at his favourite targets, the EU in particular. “He has applied the logic of the political spectacle in which an enemy is needed,” says Sara Bentivegna, a political sociologist. “And Europe is what is seen to have made us suffer.”
The writer is the FT’s Rome bureau chief
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