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04 February 2016
Italy’s Northern League jolts back from dead
Matteo Salvini embraces Lepenism to rebuild Northern League.
ROME — When Matteo Salvini took over the leadership of the Northern League at the end of 2013, Italian politicians and the media said his job would be to officiate at the party’s funeral. Two years later, it is back from the near dead — and stronger than ever.
Whether you credit the refugee crisis, the Marine Le Pen bandwagon or what party insiders prefer to call the #effettoSalvini (the Salvini effect), the party that sank to an historic low of 4 percent in the 2013 election — below the threshold for seats in the Senate — now has 16-17 percent support in nationwide polls.
That means if an election took place tomorrow — always a risk in Italy, even though Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is only halfway through his four-year term — the League could team up with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which gets 11 percent in the same polls, and the small, right-wing Fratelli d’Italia (5 percent) to put together a possible ruling coalition.
Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) stands at 30.8 percent in polls, but may lack natural allies to be able to stay in power. The 5-Star Movement is at 27.6 percent, but there is virtually zero chance that its leader, the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, would risk his anti-establishment credentials by helping Renzi stay in power.
“We are creating an alternative coalition to Renzi, one not limited to the center-right. I think categories of Right and Left are a little outdated — especially since Renzi has very little of the Left,” Salvini said in an interview.
The party’s aim is to build support from Italians “who don’t recognize themselves in Renzi or the 5-Star Movement,” added Massimiliano Fedriga, a League leader in the lower house of parliament.
Under the slogan Roma ladrona (Thieving Rome), it denounced the central government and party apparatus, in much the same way as today’s nationalist Euroskeptics, like Le Pen’s National Front, campaign against the EU bureaucracy in Brussels.
Teaming up with the Milanese media tycoon Berlusconi, the League became a player in national politics — albeit a fickle partner for Berlusconi — before the Bossi clan’s leadership was subsumed by corruption scandals.
Nothing illustrates how much the League has changed, and evolved into a serious threat to Renzi, like its recent successes beyond Padania. While there have been occasional southern offshoots before, like a Northern League deputy mayor on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, under Salvini’s leadership the party has challenged Renzi on his home turf in Tuscany.
In regional elections last May, the League took 20 percent of the vote in Tuscany, a traditional leftist stronghold. This was a personal affront for the prime minister, who rose to political prominence as mayor of the regional capital city Florence.
“Tuscany is the proof that the days are over when we were labeled as a crazy far-right party,” said 42-year-old Salvini, who joined the League at the age of 17 and quickly styled himself the “dauphin.” Elected to the European Parliament in 2004, he eventually challenged the ailing Bossi for the leadership in 2013, winning 80 percent of party delegates’ votes.
Sporting a diamond earring in the green livery of the Northern League and picking fights with the prime minister at every opportunity, Salvini has some things in common with Renzi: Both portray themselves as “new blood” in party politics and both are eager for publicity, be it talk shows, social media or glossy magazines. Renzi has appeared dressed as Fonzie from the TV series “Happy Days,” while Salvini appeared on one cover wearing absolutely nothing but a green Northern League tie.
The secret of the League’s new-found success, according to Tarchi, lies in “its competitors’ total neglect of issues that are deeply important to a significant proportion of the electorate, especially the less wealthy ones.”
Its captive vote includes “those who would like to stop the spread of a progressive and cosmopolitan worldview; those who feel uncomfortable with multi-ethnicity and with living with foreigners, as well as homosexual unions,” said Tarchi.
Fedriga, the League MP, gives the example of defending Italian pensioners: once the domain of the Left, he said, parties like the PD are “too busy to care about it.”
For political scientist Ilvo Diamanti, the League owes its revival to what he calls Lepenism — “the leverage on nationalism that responds to the fears generated by the economic crisis and global insecurity and in parallel, the growing pressure of migration.”
Salvini opposes same-sex marriage (as do many centrist and conservative Catholics in Italy). He criticized Pope Francis when the Catholic leader promoted dialogue with Muslims.
He once called Renzi an “accomplice” in what he portrays as an invasion by illegal immigrants, citing the prime minister’s opposition to closing Italy’s borders and suspending the EU’s passport-free Schengen area. On membership of the European Union, Salvini says he is “envious of the Brits who will decide in a referendum whether to leave the EU or not.”
Salvini, who has called Europe a failed experiment and the euro a crime against humanity, shares some rhetorical common ground with Renzi, who is currently battling with Brussels and EU leaders over the cost of dealing with the refugee crisis as well as other issues.
“If Renzi wants to form a common front against Brussels, the Northern League is willing to be his ally,” Salvini told POLITICO, outlining a vision of a Europe that “does a few things but does them well — that deals with immigration and foreign policy but not with agriculture, and does not grant membership to Albania, Kosovo and Turkey.”
Such sentiment aligns the League closely with Le Pen’s National Front and other pro-White European parties, who last week gathered in Milan for a conference, hosted by Salvini, of a new group in the European Parliament, the Europe of Nations and Freedom. Its 38 MEPs from groups such as the National Front, the Dutch and Austrian Freedom Parties and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang see the refugee crisis and related security concerns as an opportunity to move from the political fringe to real power.
“The Le Pen-Salvini axis is a powerful one, both in political and media terms,” said Marco Centinaio, the Northern League’s leader in the Italian Senate.
During the meeting, Salvini posted a selfie on Facebook with pro-White leaders including Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders with the caption: “We will not surrender to the clandestine invasion.”