Three weeks into Italy’s populist coalition government, a new face has emerged on the international stage: Matteo Salvini.
Just 10 days after he was appointed interior minister, he made international headlines by refusing docking rights to the NGO-run Aquarius rescue boat, which had 629 refugees and migrants on board.
A week later, he called for a census of Roma minorities, threatening to expel non-Italian Roma.
When writer and journalist Roberto Saviano – who is under police protection for his work on organised crime – criticised him, Salvini vowed to review Saviano’s protection.
At 45 years old, Salvini, who is also deputy premier, is leader of the League – a former regionalist party that he turned into a national far-right force, campaigning mostly against immigration. Before the March 4 Italian election, he promised to deport 500,000 irregular migrants, called Islam a “threat” that is incompatible with the constitution, and was filmed saying Italy needed “mass cleansing”.
“In his rhetoric, immigration and security – terrorism – are the same thing,” says Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham.
He is one of Europe’s most followed politicians on social media, with 2.7m Facebook fans – by comparison, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has 2.5m.
On Sunday, as European leaders prepared for a difficult summit in Brussels to discuss the refugee crisis, he took to his Facebook page to share anti-George Soros conspiracy theories, claiming the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist is funding foreign NGOs in collusion with human traffickers.
By the time of publication, the post had been liked more than 30,000 times.
Policy or populist propaganda?
Salvini’s rise may look lightning fast, but it has been years in the making.
When he became party leader in 2013, the Northern League was a scandal-ridden regionalist movement languishing at three percent of the vote. It won 17 percent in March this year. And a recent poll showed it might have 29 percent now – taking over the Five Star Movement (M5S) as Italy’s most popular party.
Albertazzi explains that the populist right is rising across the continent while centre-left parties struggle to find answers to immigration and globalisation.
“Populist parties don’t invent issues, they play with them in a specific way. Migration to Italy is a real issue, the Eurozone and the relationship between states and the EU is a real issue – but populists simplify answers,” he says.
“Salvini’s narrative [of immigration as a threat and the EU as a tyrant] is simplistic, but it’s one people can understand. It’s consistent. There is no alternative narrative to fight it and explain the world – only generic appeals to solidarity.”
Salvini’s style is simple, direct and bruising – reminiscent of US President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache.
Anti-immigration rhetoric has been mounting for years, blaming immigration for the effects of the economic crisis. Salvini is only saying the things that people wanted to say, but felt too ashamed to do it: 'Kick out the Roma!' and such.
His words reach beyond his role as interior minister, and are so controversial that media and social media pick them up and amplify them – which allows him to seize the spotlight and set the national agenda.
Marina Petrillo, a senior editor with Open Migration, believes that Italy’s previous centre-left government and the media prepared the ground by attacking NGOs and dehumanising migrants.
“Anti-immigration rhetoric has been mounting for years, blaming immigration for the effects of the economic crisis. Salvini is only saying the things that people wanted to say, but felt too ashamed to do it: ‘Kick out the Roma!’ and such,” she says.
Observers believe there might not be much behind his uncompromising statements.
“They aren’t policy proposals; it’s propaganda,” says Petrillo. For example, she explains that after the Aquarius fallout, Italian navy ships have continued to rescue migrants at sea and bring them to Italy, often at night.
Albertazzi, the political scientist, adds: “Like other populist right-wing parties, when they get to government they have to keep the level of tension high on certain issues. Otherwise, their voters will think they grew soft.”
Salvini cultivates the image of the next-door tenant, a nice man far from the corridors of power, who is simply forced to speak up for everyone because the situation requires it. Some supporters call him “The Captain”: a member of the team, but on somewhat higher moral ground.
From far left to far right
He perfected his image of simplicity in decades of political activity.
Born into the Milanese middle class in 1973, he studied history but never graduated, and became a member of the then incendiary Northern League in 1990, experimenting with megaphones and grass-roots organising.
In 1993, he became councillor in Milan – the only official post he held before becoming interior minister.
“On the streets, Salvini acted as opposition even if he had [fellow party members who were] Cabinet members when I was mayor,” says former Milan Mayor Gabriele Albertini, according to Il Militante (The Militant) – a book on Salvini by journalists Alessandro Madron and Alessandro Franzi.
In 2003, Salvini became the director of the Northern League’s radio station, Radio Padania, where “he honed his skills of prompt debater and savvy communicator we see today, the ability to tweet, make headlines, create slogans”, a League politician told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity. “He would just let people phone in and talk to them.”
“He dignified the worst instincts, legitimising the politically incorrect,” Il Militante reports Basilio Rizzo, a centre-left councillor in Milan, as saying.
Radio also enhanced Salvini’s nose for understanding public opinion and re-inventing himself accordingly. Through the years, he underwent drastic transformations.
He started as a left-winger within the Northern League, even founding a communist faction of the party – yet today he expresses admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Orban, and Trump.
Matteo Salvini, leader of radical right Lega, likes to communicate his political message through his t-shirts. pic.twitter.com/pFUOYMbqbH
— ©️as Ⓜ️udde 😷 (@CasMudde) March 6, 2018
Salvini is often criticised as an “opportunist”.
Once a Eurosceptic, in March Salvini said he had no intention of taking Italy out of the Eurozone. Late in May, he said Italy was “occupied financially by Germans, French and eurocrats”.
And after two decades of campaigning for the Northern League – a party that called for Northern Italy’s secession from the South, hence the name – when he became the leader, he scrapped the party’s foremost policy target and turned it into a nationalist party, rebranding it as just “League”.
Some from his own party despise him for personalising the party and ditching secessionist talk.
“He hijacked the party,” the League politician told Al Jazeera. “There’s a core of League members who still believe in the ideals of the Northern League, and they don’t forget them. You can’t criticise him now that he took the party to 29 percent, but in politics when you lose, you could be over in 10 minutes.”
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) April 26, 2016
Undoubtedly, Salvini now strikes a chord with Italians: a recent survey showed that 72 percent of Italians support his line on immigration.
Albertazzi thinks Salvini might struggle to give people answers – he might have promised more than he can do.
But he believes that unless the League’s rise stops – Italian fiscal police are investigating possible mismanagement of public money by the party – Salvini could soon pull the plug on Italy’s current government, call elections, and become PM.
“In an article for The Conversation, I said it was going to happen in two years,” says Albertazzi. “But I might have erred on the side of caution.”
All interviews and book extracts have been translated from Italian.