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Portrait of Matteo Salvini - Italian Minister of the Interior

Portrait of Matteo Salvini - Italian Minister of the Interior
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

This autumn, we had published on our blog a series of portraits - written by the most relevant authors - of personalities that we described as "neo-authoritharians". 

Mr. Putin opened the series and Mr. Trump closed it, with Mr. Orban, Mr. Erdogan, Marshal El-Sisi, MBZ and MBS (gathered in a double portrait), Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi Jinping. Our intention of mixing leaders with very different political cultures was debated but this debate precisely highlights that our analysis corresponds to a current trend of our time: the fact that those heterogeneous Heads of State and government do share a kind of family likeliness.

We were therefore asked to solicit other competent authors for a second series of portraits. We stayed truthful to our choice of an arbitrary distribution. This new series starts with Matteo Salvini, depicted by Marc Lazar, professor at Sciences Po and eminent expert of Italy. The Italian Minister of the Interior is not a dictator. Freedom is not yet threatened in Italy. The Chief of the League embodies however a compound of authoritarianism, nationalism and rejection of immigrants which is perceived to lead to a questioning of traditional democratic institutions. Which alternative model does he have in mind?

Michel Duclos, Geopolitical Special Advisor, Editor of this series

His party won 17.4% of the votes in the Chamber of Deputies in the March elections and is now credited with more than 33% of voting intentions, according to various polling institutes. The overwhelming majority of Italians say they appreciate the work he does as Minister of the Interior in the government, even though he only spends very little time there. His statements and decisions on immigrants, the fight against crime and in favour of daily security are highly praised. Enthusiastic crowds welcome him wherever he goes in the peninsula - he is constantly campaigning. According to the Demos & Py institute, many Italians see him as Italy’s "strong man" and "man of the future". According to Ipsos Italia, his supporters include small business owners, craftsmen, self-employed workers, managers of small and medium-sized enterprises, housewives, workers, unemployed people, the least educated, residents of municipalities with less than 10,000 inhabitants, and people in the 35-49 and 50-64 age groups. Who is Matteo Salvini, and how can we explain his particularly solid popularity?

Matteo Salvini was born on 9 March 1973 in a middle-class Milanese family. After attending a very good high school in the Lombardy metropolis, he enrolled at the University of Milan to study Political Science, and then History. Yet, as his interest for politics grew, he deserted university classrooms. He joined the Northern League in 1990, and started to engage in active political advocacy the following year. He thus began his career as both an activist and a politician in the "Leghisti" youth movement, within the party itself and at the Milan City Council, where he was elected at the age of 20. He held this mandate for nearly two decades, and showed great commitment to it. Meanwhile, he also worked as a journalist for the newspaper La Padania from 1997 to 1999. In 1999, he started working at the radio station Padania Libera, which allowed him to demonstrate his great talent. Within the Northern League, he led a small movement called the "Padan Communists", which enabled him to be elected to the "Parliament of Padania", an institution initiated by the founder of the party, Umberto Bossi, which was set up in Mantua but has no legal value in Italy. In 2004, Matteo Salvini was elected to the European Parliament. He resigned two years later in order to be re-elected as city councillor in Milan.

Matteo Salvini radically changed his party’s path, and transformed the Northern League into the Matteo Salvini League.

In 2008, he was elected to the Italian Parliament, which he abandoned the following year to return to the European Parliament. In 2012, he became secretary of the Lombard League, the main regionalist league in the Northern League. In 2013, he was elected to the Italian Parliament but gave up his position to remain in Strasbourg. At the end of that year, he was elected against Umberto Bossi, secretary of the Northern League. The party was undergoing a huge crisis at the time. It had barely won 4% of the votes in the political elections (against twice as many in 2008). Umberto Bossi was weakened by his illness and by various scandals also affecting other representatives of the party leadership.

Matteo Salvini radically changed his party’s path, and transformed the Northern League into the Matteo Salvini League. For almost a decade, Italians had been experiencing a deep economic crisis that brought about real social distress - high unemployment, widening inequalities, increasing poverty. This crisis is still ongoing to this day, despite a timid resumption of growth and flourishing foreign trade in 2018. The centre-left and centre-right parties, which governed the country and pursued austerity policies in line with those imposed by Mario Monti when he was Prime Minister (2011-2013), were, among others, held responsible for this situation. Hence the yearning for radical change and the desperate quest for novelty. Salvini precisely managed to present himself as a new man, despite having been in politics for 28 years.

There was a time when he perfectly embodied the Northern League. He was happy to wear his party's green shirt, to insult and denigrate the inhabitants of the South or to castigate Italy. Thus he spectacularly refused to shake hands with President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi on an official visit to Milan in 2013, claiming that he did not feel represented by him. However, Salvini has stopped attacking southerners and Rome’s "parasitism". He now attacks the European Union and immigrants, with even more acrimony than the Northern League had done so far. The former deeply disappointed the Italians who, after having been the most Europhile people on the continent, have now turned to Euroscepticism. Four main steps led to this historical change. First, the introduction of the Maastricht criteria, which put an end to significant public spending that benefited Italians. Second, the single currency, with which transalpine consumers had a bad experience - hence their mixed attachment to the euro. The latter is nevertheless supported by the majority, even though that majority is the weakest in all countries of the Eurozone. The third factor is the financial and economic crisis of 2007-2008, which hit the peninsula hard. The final step is the crisis sparked by the massive arrival of migrants from 2013 onwards. Thus for Italians, Europe is no longer synonymous with prosperity and protection. Moreover, many of them are traumatized by the five million legal immigrants - i.e. four times more than in 2001, the half a million illegal immigrants and the flow of migrants arriving on the Italian coast. In addition, for more than a quarter of a century, globalization, Europeanization and migratory shocks have led Italians to question their identity. This question has been recurrent since the Italian unification in 1861.

This national sensitivity is all the more pronounced as Italians feel humiliated by the "arrogance" of certain European countries, in particular, and for different reasons, Germany and France. They feel disgraced by the fact that they are suffering from an economic and demographic decline (with birth rates of 7.8 per 1,000 and fertility rates of 1.34 children per woman - the lowest in the European Union), or resent the fact that they were abandoned, in particular by France, when confronted with the arrival of refugees. This is where Salvini stepped in. He indeed presented himself as the herald of an Italian nation, which he defines both in terms of ethnicity and culture. He claims that the Catholic religion, in its traditional version, different from that of Pope Francis, is one of this nation’s fundamental pillars. He constantly trumpets the pre-eminence of national sovereignty: "Italians first" is one of his favorite slogans. In short, thanks to him, the Northern League has become a kind of national League.

Salvini indeed presented himself as the herald of an Italian nation, which he defines both in terms of ethnicity and culture. He claims that the Catholic religion, in its traditional version, different from that of Pope Francis, is one of this nation’s fundamental pillars.

It is no longer simply located in the north of the country, its great bastion: it has largely pervaded the center of the peninsula (Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Marche, Umbria), which had historically been predominantly left-wing until now, and has begun to establish itself in the Mezzogiorno. At the European level, the League now asserts its proximity to European far-right populist parties and movements, starting with the National Front, especially in the run-up to the European elections. Yet Salvini's ambition to become a European leader, against his designated enemy, Emmanuel Macron, by gathering all populist groups in a "League of Leagues of Europe", as he proclaimed in a meeting last July, faces serious obstacles. These include diverging strategies and the ideal of the defense of national interests held dear by each of the populist parties to which he is reaching out.

Finally, Salvini succeeded in tilting the balance of power in his favor towards the right and centre-right coalition to which his party belonged for the 2018 elections, by taking advantage of the weakening of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Not only that, but all polls show that he has now completely marginalized the latter. The League has become the leading Italian party, according to voting intentions. It is ahead of the Five Star Movement, which won the most votes (32.7%) in the March election, and with which the League has been governing the country since June. This happened after they wrote a far-fetched government contract, which can be explained by the fact that they had just been competing against each other, disagreed on a number of issues and represented divergent interests. Moreover, Salvini, who is not only Minister of the Interior but also Deputy Prime Minister, quickly gained the upper hand over his partner, the other Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement and Minister of Economic Development, Labor and Social Policy. Salvini is involved on all fronts and even overshadows the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte. In other words, Matteo Salvini is the protagonist of the current Italian government.

He hopes to be in a position of strength in order to build alliances with Forza Italia and other small parties, which would allow him to occupy the spectrum going from the centre-right to the far right.

He is a remarkable communicator. He is everywhere: on television, radio, social media or in rallies. He is continuously both active and reactive. His discourse is simple, effective, brutal, ironic, scathing and vulgar. In fact, his vulgarity serves as the irrefutable proof of his authenticity to his supporters. He systematically stages his own person, is often dressed in jeans and a widely open shirt, just as any ordinary man would be.

In order to further broaden his electoral base, he seeks to combine three different stances:

  • The first is an extreme right-wing position towards foreigners, which he represents by using xenophobic or even racist statements that have contributed to the increase in insults and attacks against foreigners in the country. 
  • The second stance is populist, which he embodies by opposing the legitimacy conferred by universal suffrage to the unelected judges who prosecute him, for instance.
  • Finally, he also wants to seem like a responsible leader, and thus speaks out in favor of companies, expresses his willingness to pursue the construction of a high-speed train line linking Lyon to Turin, which the Five Star Movement aims to stop, or moderates some of Luigi Di Maio’s attacks on journalists.. 

The truth is, Matteo Salvini's comments are often contradictory. He violently criticizes Brussels yet occasionally declares that he wants to "respect the constraints" of the European Commission. He claims to be receptive to business leaders’ demands by reducing their taxes yet wants to allow early retirement. In fact, he simply adapts to what the polls say, and is probably preparing for the early political elections that could occur after a break with the Five Star Movement. He hopes to be in a position of strength in order to build alliances with Forza Italia and other small parties, which would allow him to occupy the spectrum going from the centre-right to the far right. This could increase his chances of winning, to govern on his own terms.

Does Matteo Salvini symbolize the return of fascism, as some of his critics claim, and more so outside Italy than within the peninsula? Some of his statements and attitudes are reminiscent of the Duce and are undoubtedly constructed as subliminal messages addressed to the Italians’ collective unconscious. Thus, when in May 2018, President Sergio Mattarella, using the powers conferred to him by Article 92 of the Constitution, refused to appoint Paolo Savona to the Ministry of Economy, the League momentarily considered calling for a "march on Rome". The latter evoked Mussolini's march in October 1922, which was a key moment in his coming to power. Another example: Matteo Salvini did not hesitate to use some of Mussolini’s famous sentences - or those attributed to him - such as the one he pronounced on 29 July 2018 (Mussolini was born on 29 July 1883): "So many enemies, so much honor". Similarly, when the League leader allows photographs to be taken of him shirtless on beaches, he knows perfectly well that, by doing so, he is bringing back famous images of the Duce harvesting wheat in the Italians' memory. But there are many differences with fascism. The historical context is obviously not comparable. And above all, fascists used physical violence to terrorize their opponents. From very early on, they tried to forge a true doctrine and to deploy a totalitarian project aimed at empowering the one-party state and generating a "New Man". Nothing like that with the League.

Matteo Salvini, however, intends to meet the Italian expectation of safety and order expressed by all opinion surveys. Hence his statements and measures against immigrants whom he designated as scapegoats, or his September 2018 decree restricting the right of asylum. Similarly, he constantly displays his proximity to Vladimir Putin - the League signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian leader’s party, which is very popular in Italy - and at the same time, albeit somehow paradoxically, expresses his sympathy for Donald Trump. This is how Salvini intends to enter into the strong men Hall of Fame. Matteo Salvini thus wants to be a political leader who embodies firmness and authority, but is not strictly speaking an authoritarian leader.

Matteo Salvini thus wants to be a political leader who embodies firmness and authority, but is not strictly speaking an authoritarian leader.

In fact, the League leader is, before anything, a politician of our time. One of what Ilvo Diamanti and I call the "peoplecracy" that populists in Italy and elsewhere promote, whether or not they win the elections. They impose their topics, their style, their way of doing politics, their temporality, their simplistic, conspiracist and binary vision of the world, the idea that the sovereign people is all-powerful, without any limits. This is what is causing liberal and representative democracy to falter. And so emerges the possibility of a "peoplecracy", synonymous with immediate democracy, without any intermediate bodies, which establishes a kind of digital agora in which the leader, in this case Matteo Salvini, plays a more fundamental role than ever.

Finally, the latter’s popularity is part of a larger historical period. It is not the first time that a large share of Italians follow a man who promises miracles: Mussolini in the inter-war years, the socialist Bettino Craxi in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently Silvio Berlusconi or Matteo Renzi. These leaders differ radically in the content of their policies and in their personalities. Nevertheless, all of them embody, to varying degrees, the figures of providential men, bearers of a form of Caesarism conceived as a response to profound moments of crisis. This bears witness to the weakness of political liberalism in this country. And to the Italian democracy’s fragility, which did not, however, prevent it from successfully facing significant challenges in the past, including that of terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet if Matteo Salvini does not embody the figure of an authoritarian leader, in the full sense of the term, it is because the quest for authority expressed by the Italians does not mean that they aspire to authoritarianism, to "democratic dictatorship" or, worse, to the establishment of a real dictatorship. But it does nevertheless testify to a recurrent fascination for "decisionismo", as we say in Italian. And thus for men who display their strength, if not their virility. Who combine the power of speech with the ability to act. Who free themselves from the exhausting parliamentary deliberations and avoid multiple mediations. Today, Matteo Salvini is that man. For how long? At what cost? Many of our questions remain unanswered. For now.


Ilvo Diamanti, Marc Lazar, Peuplecratie. La métamorphose de nos démocraties, Paris, Gallimard, publication in March 2019. 
"Italie : le temps du populisme. Entretien avec Matteo Salvini, par Richard Heuzé", Politique internationale, n°161, Fall 2018, p. 23-36. 
Gianluca Passarelli, Dario Tuorto, La Lega di Salvini. Estrema destra di governo, Bologne, Il Mulino, 2018. 

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne.

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