Who is Italy’s far-right success story Matteo Salvini?

Who is Italy’s far-right success story Matteo Salvini?
By Chris Harris
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His party’s triumph in Italy’s general election has propelled Matteo Salvini into the spotlight. But who is the man who has stepped out from Silvio Berlusconi’s considerable political shadow?


As a youngster, Matteo Salvini — in the running to be Italy’s next prime minister — would search for the right response during his appearances on television quiz shows.

Now, a quarter-of-a-century on, the 44-year-old believes he is the answer to the country’s concerns about immigration and a sluggish economy.

Salvini is the brains behind the transformation of the far-right Northern League party, which was rebranded League to reflect its move to become a nationwide outfit.

Support for it surged in Sunday’s national election and the party emerged as the biggest in a centre-right coalition that included Forza Italia, the movement of Italian political juggernaut Silvio Berlusconi.

While fellow populists Five Star Movement was the single party with the biggest share of the vote, the Salvini/Berlusconi bloc could yet form Italy’s next government.

“We have the right and duty to govern,” said Salvini on Monday, who is a supporter of Italian football giants AC Milan.

His rise in popularity has been a mix of opportunism and borrowing from the success of other right-wing politicians, Dr Davide Vampa, an expert in Italian politics from Aston University told Euronews.

He has the down-to-earth charm of Nigel Farage; is hostile to political opponents on social media like Donald Trump; and has copied Marine Le Pen’s strategy of taking a fringe right-wing party into the national mainstream.

But Salvini hasn’t always been on the far-right, quite the opposite in fact.

In his youth, Salvini was a member of the left-wing social centre Leoncavallo and even with the Northern League in the 90s, he was considered to be on far left of the party.

His shift to the right has more than a hint of opportunism.

“The whole of Italian politics shifted to the right and it was more convenient for him to appeal to right-wing voters and particularly focussing on the issue of immigration,” said Vampa.

“I think immigration became such an important issue in the early 2000s. Before immigration as an issue was almost completely absent from the political debate.

“Mainly it was for a political opportunity, he thought the issue was particularly important for his party.

“I think there is always a mix with all politicians of beliefs and opportunity and strategy. His party believes in what he says.”

So what kind of personality is Salvini?

“He tries to portray himself as a simple person, a bit like Nigel Farage in the UK in the sense he’s a man you’d find in a pub and someone you could have a pint with.

“He tries to distance himself from the political establishment too. In that respect, he’s still linked to his left-wing past.

“There is an interesting mix of right-wing discourse but also this kind of being close to disadvantaged part of society, a bit like Trump, mixing anti-immigrant messages with a socially-progressive rhetoric in the sense that it is only confined to Italians."


The strategy of making League a nationwide party ahead of Italy’s general election is another pointer to Salvini’s experience.

In the days of Northern League, when the party was campaigning for Italy’s rich northern regions, he said some southern Italians "stank".

But now, with League a nationwide party, he’s changed his tune.

“The enemy is no longer the south and Rome but external enemies, in particular, the European Union and immigrants,” said Vampa.

“He’s basically shifted his racism from being racist against southern Italians to being racist against immigrants or people who come outside of Italy. He changed his political discourse because it was convenient for him.”


It isn’t just in politics where Salvini is similar to US President Trump, it’s also his use of social media.

Salvini is one of the most followed Italian leaders on Facebook and he is not shy to use it to criticise his opponents.

Two years ago he drew criticism by comparing the woman speaker of the lower house of parliament to an inflatable sex doll.

"Social media has played an important role in the campaign, mainly because his party doesn’t have many financial resources,” said Vampa. “And so social media is a very cheap way of reaching a very broad audience.”

Vampa said that while Five Star Movement leader and fellow populist Luigi Di Maio is the frontrunner to be the country’s next prime minister, Salvini had strengthened his long-term position on the right-wing of Italy’s political spectrum.


Salvini, then, is likely to be answering questions on Italian television for some time to come.

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