Standing in front of a bookshelf adorned with a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a Make America Great Again hat, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, held up a sign on Sunday that read “number one party in Italy, thank you.” Salvini’s League party had just received 34 percent of the country’s vote in the European Parliament’s election, making it the most popular party in Italy for the first time in its history and giving the far-right leader even more power.
Across the European Union, traditionally powerful center-left and center-right parties have suffered huge election losses, while upstart green parties on the left and nationalist, anti-immigrant parties on the radical right have risen. Few politicians have gained more from the fracturing than 46-year-old Salvini, whose party is now popular enough that it may break up Italy’s coalition government and trigger a general election.
Radical right populists historically tend to remain as opposition parties that snipe from the sidelines, or have their support collapse after they enter government and fail to deliver on their promises. But Salvini and the League are now more than a year into government and have only gained in popularity, eclipsing their anti-establishment Five Star party allies as the dominant force in Italy’s coalition government.
And as Salvini’s influence has grown, he has cemented himself as a center of power for Europe’s far right. He claimed after the EU election he is now working on an alliance of far-right parties that would include leaders such as France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and British Brexit hard-liner Nigel Farage.
“This departs from Italy, this dream, this project, this vision, this future, departs from Milan and Rome,” Salvini told The New York Times last month of his plan for an alliance.
It’s unclear whether such a coalition will ever fully materialize, given each of these parties’ differing goals and the difficulties of nationalist parties working together. But in the meantime, Salvini has become the European radical right’s most prominent figure, positioning himself as the alternative to French President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-EU vision.
Salvini’s rise has coincided with a wave of anti-immigrant hate crimes in Italy, along with open support of fascist symbols. But Salvini has defended his far-right supporters against allegations of extremism while toying with social taboos around Italy’s fascist history. He tweeted a quote from dictator Benito Mussolini on the fascist leader’s birthday last July and also gave a speech earlier this month from a balcony that Mussolini once used. In April, Salvini skipped a commemoration of Italy’s 1945 liberation from fascism. He has backed authorities tearing down camps where Italy’s Roma minority live and railed against billionaire George Soros, a favorite target of far-right conspiracists.
“In this piazza, there are no extremists. There are no racists. There are no fascists,” he told a rally of supporters earlier this month as protesters gathered nearby.
Although Salvini’s message is remarkably similar to other far-right populist leaders, he has been especially effective at communicating it ― largely relying on a prolific social media output that rivals that of President Donald Trump. Once in power, he has also stuck to his rhetoric and held strict control over his party to keep others on message. While other radical right populists in government have been exposed as they tried to take on issues outside their comfort zone, Salvini has focused his party almost solely on opposing immigration, demanding concessions from the EU and attacking Islam. He has effectively never stopped campaigning ― holding up largely symbolic immigration victories as proof of success while completely ignoring Italy’s other issues.
“Within Italy, he’s managed to become the face of a harsher immigration policy, and he’s reaped the rewards from that,” said Duncan McDonnell, a professor at Australia’s Griffith University and an expert on the European radical right.
Salvini’s prominence has made him an attractive figure to other radical right populist politicians around Europe, who have lined up for visits and put him at the forefront of their renewed attempt to form an oxymoronic international alliance of nationalists. Orban, Hungary’s prime minister whose consolidation of power and erosion of democracy has provided a blueprint for radical right populists, lauded Salvini as “the most important person in Europe today.”
Salvini’s domestic popularity, along with Italy being the third largest economy in the eurozone and a country on the front line of migration to Europe, has given him sizable power in the EU. He also comes with somewhat less baggage than some other figures on the far right, such as Le Pen or Orban.
“Le Pen is still seen in a lot of countries, especially Nordic countries, as being the daughter of an anti-Semite and really extreme right,” McDonnell said. “We need to wait and see whether Matteo Salvini is really the new leader of the European far right or whether he’s just the pretty, acceptable face for this phase.”
But in Italy, Salvini could become the next leader. Although the Five Star party won the largest share of the vote in last year’s election, its support has dissipated and it has continuously feuded with the League. Other opposition parties are still struggling from disastrous showings in last year’s elections or fading leadership, as in the case of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right party. The League’s increasing popularity and success in the EU elections could lead to Salvini initiating a breakup of the government that would result in early elections, with the far right primed to win the largest share of the vote.
If Italy does head for a new election, Salvini may be faced with having to address how his party can actually govern and handle the myriad problems facing the country.
“Salvini doesn’t really go near the economy. He talks about immigration. He talks about Europe. He talks about the key issues,” McDonnell said. “The question is: How long can he get away with that?”