Italian Far-Right Strongman Matteo Salvini’s Bid to Be Prime Minister Has Backfired Spectacularly

Instead of the new elections he wanted, the populist strongman has found himself dumped out of government and facing plummeting poll ratings.
August 29, 2019, 5:19pm
Italian Far-right Strongman Matteo Salvini’s Bid to Be Prime Minister Has Backfired Spectacularly

How do you say own goal in Italian? Somebody ask Matteo Salvini.

Italy’s powerful Interior Minister collapsed his own coalition government earlier this month as part of an audacious power grab, which he intended would see him crowned prime minister in a new far-right, nationalist administration.

But instead of the new elections he wanted, the populist strongman has found himself dumped out of government and facing plummeting poll ratings. He can thank the unlikely new alliance formed to keep him out of power. On Wednesday night, his former coalition partner, the 5 Star Movement, which once vowed not to work with establishment parties, announced it had struck a deal to form a new coalition government with the opposition Democratic Party, one that will avoid Italians going back to the polls, and avert the risk of a Salvini-led government.

Advertisement

“He’s quite clearly been outmaneuvered,” Ferdinando Giugliano, an Italian columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, told VICE News. He said Salvini had not banked on 5 Star and the Democratic Party joining forces, given the acrimonious history between the parties.

“He underestimated that there were people in the Democratic Party and 5 Star who really didn’t want to go to the polls,” he said.

Since entering government in June last year, Salvini has rapidly become Italy’s most influential politician on the back of his populist “Italians first” policies, including a signature campaign to stop asylum seekers reaching Italy’s shores, and fiercely xenophobic rhetoric

Despite catching heat for his extreme politics from European leaders and rights groups, his relentless campaigning made Lega Italy’s strongest political force, earning 34 percent of the vote in May’s European Parliamentary elections, and driving its poll ratings to 38 percent earlier this month.

READ MORE: Italy is trying to criminalize migrant rescue boats

But his failed political gambit — attempting to force new elections to allow him to cash in on those high poll ratings — appears to have put the brakes on Lega’s popularity for now, as Italians blame Salvini for engineering yet another political crisis. An opinion poll in the Corriere della Sera newspaper Wednesday showed Salvini's approval rating had plunged by 15 points since he killed the coalition agreement earlier this month. He now lags 16 points behind Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was given a green light from President Sergio Mattarella to form a coalition government Thursday.

Advertisement

READ MORE: Black Italians face a wave of racism let loose by Matteo Salvini

“What we’re seeing is Salvini seems to be losing popularity quite sharply. Fifteen percent in a few weeks is a lot,” said Giugliano.

“There are people who are frankly a bit fed up with him and the fact he’s so brash, and dominating the conversation in an odd manner — campaigning on the beach, continually making reference to Mother Mary, tweeting what he eats and drinks.”

He said that the fact Salvini will receive less media coverage in opposition will also blunt his appeal.

But don’t count him out in the longer term. Despite the agreement between 5 Star and the Democratic Party, they still face some hurdles just to form a government in coming days, including agreeing on a coherent draft policy program and cabinet.

“I don’t think we should rule Salvini out at all,” said Giugliano. “The government that’s about to be created will be a difficult enterprise. In six months time, he could gain traction as soon as this government starts having trouble.”

For his part, Salvini is putting on a brave face as he warms to his new role in opposition. “So we have to wait six months or a year to win? We're in no hurry,” he said shortly after the new governing coalition had been announced.

Cover: Matteo Salvini gives a press conference at the Senate, in Rome, Italy, Monday, Aug. 26. 2019. (Claudio Peri/ANSA via AP)