Italy will be a test for right-wing populism in the European elections
The League is projected to win big despite recent setbacks
Italian populist leader Matteo Salvini spent the weeks leading up to the European election strolling through cheering crowds, delivering stump speeches and posing amicably for selfies.
Thousands of flag-waving supporters gathered in squares from north to south, in the towns of Lecce, Putignano, Settimo, Fossano, among others, to listen to the League party chief call for the “politics of good sense.”
In Milan, where he hosted the closing rally alongside the leaders of France’s National Rally (RN), Marine Le Pen, and the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV), Geert Wilders, he took aim once again at the European establishment.
“The extremists are those who have governed Europe for the past 20 years,” he said.
The Captain, as his fan base calls him, is projected to bag 30 per cent of the votes next Sunday – a whopping 25 seats of the 73 allocated to Italy. His cross-continent alliance of anti-EU groups could become the fourth largest bloc in the European parliament.
If the key question in the European elections of May 23-26 is how well populist anti-EU parties will perform, then Mr Salvini, who framed himself the de facto leader of the populist front, is the man to watch.
Rallies have been a crucial part of Mr Salvini’s never-ending campaign. According to leading newspaper Corriere della Sera, the Italian interior minister and deputy Prime Minister, conducted over 200 rallies and spent only 17 days in his ministerial office since he was elected in March 2018.
But in the final leg of the European tour, the crowds have dwindled, the insults poured in and polls took a nose dive, leading some observers to suggest that he might have taken his rhetoric too far.
The gathering of far-right leaders failed to fill Milan’s central Duomo square on May 18 and was marred by the authorities attempts to remove the increasing number of scornful banners hung from balconies.
It was not the first act of defiance against the leader of the League party.
In a town close to Bergamo, the League’s stronghold in northern Italy, Mr Salvini had expected strong support on May 13 but was instead greeted by a banner reading “You are not welcome,” which he asked policed officers to remove.
This act ignited a nation-wide rebellion. Witty anti-Salvini banners began appearing on residential facades wherever he went across the boot-shaped country. Many made reference to the 49 million euros embezzled by the previous party leader, Umberto Bossi.
One in Milan purported to give Mr Salvini directions to Loreto square, where fascist leader Benito Mussolini was hung in 1945.
Mr Salvini cruised from the extreme left in his youth to the populist right, where it is now tightly anchored. His denigration of migrants and pledges to deport them, hard Eurosceptic views and a questionable friendship with Russia has led some to fear that Italy may be reopening a dark chapter of history.
Indeed, the populist firebrand does not shy away from fascism, at times bluntly flirting with the ideas and symbolism it enshrined. Earlier this month, he addressed his political supporters in the town of Forli from the same balcony in Saffi square where the former fascist dictator witnessed the execution of his opponents. His mantra, "many enemies, much honour," paraphrases one to the same effect first used by executed Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
Recently, the eviction of Roma communities because of policies that aim to put “Italians first” has been criticised as reminiscent of the racial discrimination enforced in Fascist Italy from 1938 to 1943. All the while, his mentions of the Virgin Mary and his appearances brandishing a rosary have angered the Vatican.
On Twitter, Mr Salvini downplayed accusations. “Here there are no fascists, but only Italians who are proud to be Italian.”
But critics, including the president of the local branch of the anti-fascist resistance organisation, Vico Zanetti, condemned his balcony appearance saying “You cannot joke about Saffi square.”
While concerns that Italy may be falling back into the fold of fascism may be exaggerated, Mr Salvini is building up a cult of personality around himself by breaking taboos and promoting incendiary ethnocentric views that feed on an “us against them” worldview.
Just as Italy has been a harbinger of things to come when it embraced fascism in 1920, Brussels is keeping an eye on the Bel Paese for a glimpse of Europe’s future.
As things stand, Eurosceptic parties are projected to edge close to a cumulative one-third mark in the next European Parliament, giving them the chance to obstruct the parliament’s work on foreign policy, eurozone reform and freedom of movement. They could seek to curtail freedom of expression, the rule of law and civil rights.
Mr Salvini, who represents an EU founding member state, has positioned himself at the forefront of a growing movement of nationalist leaders since March 2018, when he entered a coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). Over the past year, his party has risen in the polls, leaping from 17 per cent to a projected 30 per cent and becoming Italy’s biggest political bloc.
His pan-European group, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN), is projected to win 74 of the 751 seats in Brussels. Other Eurosceptic parties who remain outside of the alliance may join at a later stage, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz.
Should the League rack up the forecast 30 per cent of the Italian votes, it would be nothing short of remarkable for a party that secured just 6.2 per cent of the votes in the last European parliamentary elections in 2014.
But there are growing signs that voters may be beginning to rebel against Mr Salvini’s distasteful references to fascism and mockery of church institutions. The 30 per cent forecast is down from the 37 per cent that his party were polling in April. Mr Salvini’s personal approval rating has also dropped by 7 per cent from 59 per cent in the last two months and while criticism is becoming more vocal.
The Italian vote may not only have repercussions on Europe, but on national politics too. Eugenio Pizzimenti, professor of Political Science at Pisa University, believes the balance of power between Italy’s two governing parties will shift dramatically if the League wins over 30 per cent of the votes and the M5S drops to around 20 as predicted.
“This would reshuffle the cards on the table and everything would be in the hands of [President Sergio] Mattarella,” Mr Pizzimenti told The National. “To dissolve parliament would be risky for the country’s economic situation, but then there is the question of who will draft the next budget plan, which promises blood and tears.”
Together with the University of Amsterdam, Mr Pizzimenti and his colleagues devised a “Voting advice application” that ask users a set of questions to allow them to identify the political group closest to their views. While designing the questionnaire, Mr Pizzimenti said they noticed that left-wing parties had begun to shift their focus back to topics that matter to the left, rather than letting right-wing parties set the agenda as they did in 2018.
While this may not be enough to contain the surge of populism in Italy ahead of the next European battle, it may be a sign of things to come.
Updated: June 6, 2019 03:23 PM