Italy on election alert as Salvini’s permanent campaign rolls on

Matteo Salvini is Italy’s current deputy prime minister. (Bloomberg pic)

ROME: Matteo Salvini made the anti-immigrant League the biggest winner in Italy’s March election with a barrage of speeches, interviews, and constant tweeting about a supposed migrant crime wave, the European Union’s unfairness and the need to put Italians first.

Four months later, 45-year-old Salvini is deputy prime minister and de facto leader in a populist coalition government, but his campaign continues.

Last Saturday, he was demanding lower taxes and better pensions at a League festival near Verona. On Sunday, he was in Moscow to root against France at the World Cup final. Monday saw complaints about foreigners taking Italians’ jobs at an Adriatic resort. On Tuesday, he was bragging about a mafia crackdown, and on Wednesday, he met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo. Everywhere, he spoke to cameras and tweeted.

In theory, Italy isn’t due an election for another five years. But Salvini’s perpetual motion, his disregard for the limits of his interior ministry brief, and his soaring popularity risk destabilising his uncomfortable alliance with the heterogenous, but more leftist, Five Star. Polls suggest a snap election could make Salvini prime minister.

“Populism needs permanent electoral campaigning, especially when it is not able to produce concrete policies,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a professor in the School of Government at Luiss University in Rome. “Salvini is also using it as a kind of training to be ready to face new elections at anytime.”

On Monday some 3,000 people turned up on a hot July evening to a rally in Silvi Marina, on Italy’s east coast, where speakers urged them to support the League in upcoming regional elections. Salvini took the stage in jeans and a blue T-shirt.

“I don’t like the fact that with 5 million Italians living in poverty we have to spend 5 billion euros (RM24 billion) a year for these migrants,” he said, mocking asylum-seekers for exaggerating the hardships they are escaping. “We will cut these funds and use them for Italians.”

“With fewer taxes, with fewer foreigners, with more security, we will once again be the most beautiful country in the world,” he said.

As he spoke, League workers handed out t-shirts. Signs everywhere said “Italy First.” Salvini’s Facebook page asks people to stick #iostoconsalvini or “I am with Salvini” on their homepage, and one of his two twitter accounts have kept the campaign slogan of “Salvini Prime Minister.”

Salvini has dominated press coverage in recent months, above all by barring humanitarian boats from docking in Italy with African migrants and winning pledges from other European countries to share the burden of migrants arriving on Italian shores. As well as his trip to Russia, he’s made a well-covered trip to Libya. In his talks with el-Sisi he discussed security cooperation and terrorism.

While Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio have occasionally managed to push back against some of his initiatives – a June call to register Roma people was judged beyond the pale – they have largely been obscured by Salvini’s media offensive.

The League took 17% of the popular vote for the lower house on March 4, way behind Five Star’s 33%, making Salvini in theory the junior partner in their coalition government. But recent surveys show Salvini overtaking his partner-cum-rival.

A SWG poll published July 9 gave the League 31% support, compared with 29% for Five Star. Instituto Noto gave Salvini a 56% approval rating on July 2, with Di Maio at 49% and other political leaders far behind.

“Both the League and the Five Star have a kind of permanent campaign operation,” Panarari said. “But Salvini has the upper hand.”