Italy's Salvini takes tips from Trump's playbook

ITAMatteoSalviniROME – Five years ago, the separatist Northern League finished far behind in Italy’s general election, sitting between two parties with so little support they no longer exist.

Now it is a partner in a two-party government coalition, and, according to polls, may soon be the country’s dominant political force. What is behind the rapid growth? An increasingly strong and vocal stand against migration.

“Migrants have become the central issue in Italy, and it’s clear Italy will be tightening the screws of migrant arrivals and on migrants already” in Italy, said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and the president of Rome’s John Cabot University.

Italy is on the front line of Europe’s migration problem: more than 600,000 refugees landed on Italy’s shores in the last four years.

Anti-migrant sentiment in Italy has oftentimes taken a violent turn. In the lead-up to Italy’s March 4 vote that -- after nearly three months of contentious negotiations – resulted in the government installed Friday, six African migrants were shot in one afternoon by a former local League candidate who has a Nazi tattoo on his face.

As recently as Saturday, a refugee from Mali was killed and two others injured in southern Italy, though there were no obvious connections to any political party. There have been multiple reports of less deadly violence against migrants in the last few months.

“There is an increasing belief that the Italy’s problems, whether slow economic growth, jobs, crime, whatever, either come in part from the arrival of too many migrants,” said Gian Franco Gallo, an ABS Securities political analyst. “The League didn’t create the anti-migrant sentiment, but they identified it and made other parties follow suit.”

It represents a radical change for a country until recently seen as among Europe’s most open and tolerant nations. The polling company Opinioni reports that migration tops some polls as the issue Italians care about most, more than education, the environment, or economic issues.

Credit Matteo Salvini, 45, a college dropout and long-time party official, for the change of strategy. Salvini took control of the party in the wake of the 2013 vote, dropped “Northern” from its name in order to broaden its appeal, and de-emphasized the party’s central plank calling for more regional autonomy.

For his part, Salvini has not minced words when addressing the issue, repeating in speeches that “unchecked immigration brings chaos, anger, drug dealing, theft, rape, and violence.”

The message seems to be gaining traction.

In the March 4 vote, the League won 17.4 percent of the vote, a huge rise from 4.1 percent in the previous elections five years earlier but still far behind coalition partner Five-Star Movement, which garnered 32.7 percent. But over the course of the negotiations, the League’s fortunes improved dramatically. According to Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, a new vote held today would see the League finish in a near statistical tie with the Five-Star Movement, 28.5 percent and 30.1 percent of the vote, respectively. Opinioni said the League is now bigger than the Five-Star Movement in at least three regions the latter party won in March.

That newfound strength has resulted in out-sized influence in the new government. Despite having around half as many seats in parliament as the Five-Star Movement, Salvini is co-deputy-prime minister on equal footing with Five-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio. And the League has provided eight of the 18 ministers in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s cabinet, including key posts such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry for European Affairs.

Salvini even went toe-to-toe with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and won. On Thursday, Juncker said Italy should ”stop blaming” the European Union for the country’s problems. “Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy,” Juncker said. “That means more work, less corruption, more seriousness.” Salvini accused him of being “shameful and racist” and within a few hours the former Luxembourg prime minister apologized. Two days later, Juncker was more cautious when asked about Italy: “I do not want to feed the accusations spread by populists that we are sitting in Brussels and meddling with Italian affairs,” he said.

As the League gains more public support and its leadership becomes more experienced, it could create instability for the government, Gallo said.

“If the League feels it will do better with new elections it could make major demands from the government, which will either have to give in [to the League] or risk new elections that could finish with the League as the senior partner in any coalition,” Gallo said.

Meanwhile, the Italian public seems content with the new government despite controversial policies – not just on migration, but on the future of the euro currency, European Union rules on government deficits, and taxation.

“I have no problem giving these new parties a chance,” said Marco Alfonsi, a 44-year-old butcher who supported a small right-wing party allied with the League but who said he would vote for the League in future elections. “They can’t do worse that the governments we’ve had in the past, and I think it’s right that the want to put the interests of Italy before those of the European Union or of migrants from countries I’ve never heard of.”

Chiriac Tiberiu Paul, 56, is a Romanian who has lived in Italy for 24 years. At a crowded rpolitical ally Saturday, he was waving a large Romanian flag with a hole cut in middle, a symbol of his native country’s overthrow of communist-era leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Paul said what was happening in Italy reminded him of what happened in his country nearly 30 years ago.

“I have always thought Italians have to be a bit more revolutionary,” Paul said. “Now it seems they are finally starting to do it. I think it’s a good thing.”

Photo: The Leage leader Matteo Salvini.
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 06/04/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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