ROME — A year ago, Matteo Salvini seemed invincible.
Fans queued round the corner for selfies with the then-interior minister. His far-right League was by far the country’s most popular political force.
But with Italians looking for a more solemn leadership style during the coronavirus crisis, Salvini’s populist playbook has fallen flat, exposing his vulnerabilities.
Unable to focus the national debate on immigration and denied political rallies and other opportunities to press the flesh, Salvini has slumped in the polls.
His attempts at political stunts — occupying parliament in protest against lockdowns, tweeting disinformation about the virus coming from a Chinese lab — have failed to gain traction among voters.
ITALY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
Though the League remains Italy’s strongest party, POLITICO’s Poll of Polls puts its support at 27 percent, down 4 percentage points from the end of February and 10 points from its peak last summer. Its lead over the center-left Democratic Party has narrowed from 15 points to 6.
Across Europe, populist parties have done well in countries where they are in power, such as Poland and Hungary, but parties in opposition such as the League and Spain’s far-right Vox have generally struggled, said Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster at YouTrend.
“The public rallies around the flag, and the health crisis is the only topic on the agenda,” he said. “There is no space for the immigration debate.”
A recent image change — Salvini has given up his trademark open-neck white shirt in favor of tech-nerd glasses and a suit and tie — has done little to boost his standing.
Out of office
Salvini’s messaging during the coronavirus crisis has at times been confused. He fluctuated on lockdown in late February, calling for reopening in Lombardy’s most-affected zones, then a few days later demanding full lockdown.
Since the virus hit Italy, the lockdown has damaged the former interior minister’s ability to connect with the public, Jacopo Morrone, a senior League MP, told POLITICO. “The strength of Salvini and the League is out in the field, showing our faces. We are always in the piazzas, we are close to the people.”
Pregliasco the pollster agrees: “People who have studied the Salvini machine, the selfie lines and rallies, say meeting people is part of his ability to come across as an empathetic leader. Not having this has crippled his communications strategy.”
Salvini’s popularity rose last summer through repeated stand-offs with NGO migrant rescue vessels. But his star began to wane in August when he brought down the government in an attempt to force elections, which he hoped would make him prime minister. The miscalculation allowed his rivals to form a new government without him.
He is now suffering from being in opposition, said Maurizio Gasparri, a prominent senator in Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, part of the League’s right-wing alliance.
“As minister for the interior, he was on the frontline against the landing of the refugee boats, which was appreciated by many Italians,” said Gasparri. “Now that he is no longer the figurehead of the fight against the boats he is being penalized.”
Then in January, the League failed to win a key regional election in the left-wing stronghold of Emilia Romagna, on which Salvini had staked his reputation.
His slip in the polls has given room to his rivals on the right, with Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the even more far-right Brothers of Italy, seeing a rise in support from 6.7 percent to 14 percent in the last year.
Within the League, Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto and a more moderate figure, has seen his approval ratings soar.
Zaia insists he has no aspirations to the national leadership, and for now most in the League are happy to stick with Salvini, who as leader has taken the party from 3 percent to 30 percent, said Pregliasco.
“He brought the League to government and success in many regions. Many owe something to Salvini.”
While Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government has until now benefitted from a rally-around-the-flag effect, the looming economic crisis could give opposition leaders like Salvini opportunities to strike.
A €55 billion economic stimulus package was delayed for more than a month as the ruling coalition wrangled over temporary work permits for undocumented migrant farm workers and carers. And thanks to Italy’s notorious bureaucracy, many furloughed workers and businesses have received little or no state financial assistance.
Perhaps the most promising theme for boosting political consensus has been the lack of EU solidarity, after neighboring countries initially closed borders with Italy and blocked produce from being transported.
Polls show a wide proportion of the public, two-thirds, have little or no trust in the EU, with only the Democratic Party’s electorate more pro-Europe than anti, said Pregliasco. “Framing the debate about Europe could prove fertile ground.”
So far, however, Salvini has failed to find purchase in the EU debate. His attempt to work the angle was somewhat incoherent, insisting that Italy reject €37 billion in condition-free health care aid from the European Stability Mechanism.
The basis for rejecting the aid was that it could open the door to harsh fiscal oversight and devastating austerity, as happened in Greece in 2015. “But it was a very technical argument, and didn’t resonate with the broader electorate,” said Pregliasco.
Officials within the League hope a revival of the migration debate could play a role in the party’s resurgence.
An EU proposal for a €750 billion recovery fund to help crisis-hit countries has the potential to change the game, softening attitudes toward the EU and further undermining the Salvini message (although the fund is far from a done deal).
Officials within the League hope a revival of the migration debate could play a role in the party’s resurgence. The amnesty for about 200,000 migrant workers could be a gift to Salvini and the right. He could also benefit from a recent increase in migrant boat landings as the summer gets underway.
Then there are Salvini’s personal travails, which have the potential to pay off politically.
This month, the senate will vote on whether Salvini will stand trial for kidnapping over a decision he made last summer as interior minister, when he refused to let migrants aboard the German ship Open Arms alight in Italy.
It comes as some of Italy’s leading prosecutors have come under fire for leaked WhatsApp messages in the case, in which they seemed to be plotting to attack Salvini. Opposition senators may therefore feel it is bad timing for a trial.
The League doesn’t want to engage in “the politics of the victim,” said Morrone. But if it were to go ahead, a trial could give Salvini a chance to portray himself as defending the country from invading hoards and possibly bring back some voters lost to the Brothers of Italy.
The leaked transcripts of WhatsApp messages will be seen by many Italians as potential judicial overreach, said Morrone. “Italians imagine themselves in the place of Salvini and worry that they too could be judged for their political beliefs.”
With the government perpetually on the verge of collapse, Salvini will be hoping the coming months bring another reversal of fortune.