This time last week the Italian far-right leader, Matteo Salvini, seemed invincible. His League party had managed to push the latest version of its draconian anti-immigration bill through parliament after winning a vote of no-confidence. The party then claimed victory after its coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), failed to block an Alpine rail link with France.
Italians have been squabbling over the TAV rail project for 30 years, but for Salvini the clash was the ideal catalyst for liberating his party from the tempestuous coalition. Seeking to capitalise on the League flourishing popularity, he called for snap elections and immediately declared himself a candidate for prime minister, urging supporters in the coastal town of Pescara to give the League “the strength to take this country in hand and save it”.
“Italians need certainty and a government that does things, not a Mr No,” he said after announcing last Thursday that he was pulling the plug on the coalition. It was pointless carrying on because of all the quarrelling, he said.
Just under a week later, Salvini’s path to the premiership looks less than smooth after the League’s attempts to call an immediate no-confidence vote in the current leader, Giuseppe Conte, were thwarted on Tuesday by M5S and the centre-right Democratic party (PD). Conte has been summoned to parliament on 20 August to address the crisis and face a possible confidence vote then, but the outcome is uncertain.
Salvini’s strategy behind the shock call for a snap vote was obvious. He needed to capitalise on the League’s growing popularity. Backing for the party has leapt from 17.4% to around 38% since the game-changing March 2018 general election, while support for M5S has halved. The shift in the balance of power within the coalition was confirmed after the European elections in late May, when the League became Italy’s biggest party after winning 34% of the vote.
Salvini’s political ascent has been aided by his relentless campaigning on social media and rallies on piazzas and beaches across the country with what he presents as a “man of the people” style. His demonising of a succession of so-called enemies – migrants, Roma people, Muslims, leftwing “do-gooders” – has also been a reliable component of his success.
Demographics played a key role in his EU election campaign as part of his nativist vision of reversing Italy’s shrinking population and protecting Italian identity. He regularly kisses crucifixes and thanks the Virgin Mary for his successes, while attacking Pope Francis. All of this has appealed to a support base yearning for a strongman to restore pride in Italy.
Now though, the emerging relationship between former rivals M5S and the PD could jeopardise Salvini’s plans. Spearheaded by the former prime minister and PD senator, Matteo Renzi, factions from each party have been in talks about carving out a majority in parliament that could see the government thought to the end of its term in 2023. The PD leader, Nicola Zingaretti, opposed the suggestion earlier this week but is now warming to it.
Recognising the threat, Salvini made another surprise move during the heated senate debate on Tuesday by saying he would be willing to accept a proposal by the M5S leader, Luigi Di Maio, to cut the number parliamentarians from 951 to 605 – on condition the reform was swiftly followed by new elections.
“It’s a very cheap tactical game toward M5S and a way to bide time while Salvini invents a new line of communication to maintain his popularity,” said Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University.
Salvini’s moves to revive a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the smaller far-right party, Brothers of Italy, also hit a stumbling block after Forza Italia said it would not contest new elections on a single electoral list or scrap its party symbol. Berlusconi could easily shift his support to the opposition if he is not granted status within the coalition.
Salvini has also faced protests on his beach tour to woo supporters in M5S’s southern strongholds. “It’s not only the traditional southern leftwingers opposing him, but M5S supporters who are calling him ‘traitor’,” said Diletti.
Despite this, Salvini is still riding high. A survey on voting intentions by Noto Sondaggi on Monday put the League on 38%, the PD 23% and M5S 16.5%.
“It’s a long path, but he is popular and doesn’t have any real challenger,” Diletti said. “He’s excellent at communication and doesn’t care about political etiquette – he’s like [Donald] Trump – maybe even better than him at a national level.”