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Who is Roberto Vannacci, Italy's favourite far-right general?

General Roberto Vannacci attends the presentation of a book by the League leader Matteo Salvini in Rome, 30 April 2024
General Roberto Vannacci attends the presentation of a book by the League leader Matteo Salvini in Rome, 30 April 2024 Copyright AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
Copyright AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
By Aleksandar Brezar
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When Roberto Vannacci's controversial book came out last August, he was widely mocked and criticised for his extreme views – yet now he's the lead candidate for Matteo Salvini's far-right Lega party in the European elections.

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For many years, Italian General Roberto Vannacci was a complete unknown despite his illustrious military credentials.

If anything, the Spezia-born paratrooper was only familiar to those in the army. His participation in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and interventions against the so-called Islamic State group made him a war hero among his peers.

Today, he is the lead candidate in the European elections for Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega party and will almost certainly go to Brussels.

“I will be an independent candidate who has his own identity and who will fight, with courage, to affirm my own values of homeland, tradition, family, sovereignty and identity that I very much share with Lega,” Vannacci said after Salvini announced him as the party’s top choice earlier in April.

However, his transition from soldier to politician was not the straightforward uniform-for-a-suit path one would expect.

Vannacci vaulted to the top of public debate last summer when he published the book Il mondo al contrario — The World Upside Down replete with extreme views on women, the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants.

All of a sudden, no one could stop talking about him. The book drew furious criticism for its homophobic and sexist contents, while its numerous grammatical and spelling errors were ridiculed in the domestic press. 

Nonetheless, The World Upside Down, which was originally published in a small edition, shot up to a bestseller by mid-August, with more than 22,000 copies sold. By September, Vannacci, dubbed “Italy’s most famous general” by his publisher, was touring the country.

The book ultimately sold nearly a quarter of a million copies, and in March, he published a follow-up, Il coraggio vince, or Courage Wins, which he’s been promoting along with his electoral campaign.

“The success of Vannacci's book is due to a mistake by (Italian daily newspaper) La Repubblica, which, instead of doing what the progressive-leaning press usually does — ignoring the thoughts of its opponents — could not resist the temptation to mock the author of an unpleasant book,” sociologist and political scientist Luca Ricolfi told Euronews.

Ricolfi, a former columnist for La Repubblica and other notable Italian outlets, explained that the press underestimated the power of Vannacci’s often brutal words — including claims that homosexuals “are not normal” and that stabbing someone in the jugular with a pencil should be acceptable self-defence for petty theft — and overlooked the fact that his message resonated with some parts of Italian society.

“Intellectuals and journalists thought so when they naively said, ‘wait until the end of September, and you will see that no one will talk about it any more,’” he pointed out, “yet with Vannacci on the list, Lega will get more votes than it would without him.”

'Be yourself, say whatever you want'

Publicity stunts are a standard feature of Italian politics across the political spectrum, and it’s not uncommon for politicians to use outrage as a tool to mobilise support, even over marginal or trivial issues.

Earlier in May, Salvini and centrist candidate Carlo Calenda publicly sparred over the EU regulation requiring all plastic bottles to have the cap attached. 

Yet Vannacci’s appeal comes not from his outrageous statements themselves, but from the average Italian’s belief that freedom equals common sense and that no topic should be off the table. 

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In defending his words simply by asserting his right to say them, the general is cashing in on decades of work by populists who have convinced many voters that being authentic means being able to say anything without any consequence — a style of politics most closely associated with Silvio Berlusconi.

A man poses next to a poster of Silvio Berlusconi outside the latter's residence in Arcore, near Milan, 12 June 2023
A man poses next to a poster of Silvio Berlusconi outside the latter's residence in Arcore, near Milan, 12 June 2023AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Berlusconi, the media mogul often labelled as Europe’s first populist, was a constant presence in Italian politics since the 1990s until his death last June. While he led his own party, Forza Italia, he is credited with kickstarting the careers of Salvini and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, who leads the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia.

The four-time prime minister made a name for himself as a no-nonsense politician ever since he declared his “descent into the field”, claiming politics should come to the people. However, Berlusconi was no stranger to self-instigated chaos, arguing with journalists or saying that migrants are welcome as long as they are “attractive women”.

While the term "Berlusconism" was originally coined to describe its namesake leader's entrepreneurial optimism, it has since become a catch-all term for hard-right views and questionable practices, including alleged conflicts of interest, links to the mafia, sexual misconduct and corruption.

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“Berlusconi's TV channels had an important re-educational role on human relations —interpersonal relations, sexual relations, family relations — every day. So now we have Vannacci who tells people what they have already learned over the years through TV,” Nadia Urbinati, Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, told Euronews.

“In the name of what's 'natural', they have been selling behaviour that is oftentimes offensive against immigrants, homosexuals, and 'unnatural' forms of families. It's a type of reaction against the politically correct mentality: 'We can finally openly in public say what we think without any control or check because this is what human life is,’” she explained.

Vannacci is simply the latest iteration of a decades-long shift in which voters are the ones shaping politicians’ positions rather than the other way around, Urbinati said.

“They follow the media, and they follow the audience. It is the audience that decides the opinions. This is the problem."

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“It's a sign of a change — that is very radical — in the way in which our democracies work. We certainly can't go back to the past good place in which parties were able to shape political minds any more. There is no longer politics here, there are ordinary opinions concerning what we think personally, individually, subjectively,” she explained.

Trouble at home, blue skies above

While he might already be packing his bags for Brussels, Vannacci has found himself in significant trouble on the domestic front.

In late February, he was suspended from the army for 11 months over claims of dereliction of duty. He is also expected to face charges for embezzlement and fraud related to the expenses he incurred during his time as a military attache in Moscow between 2021 and 2022, including alleged lavish restaurant bills and an unauthorised spending of €9,000 on a BMW — questions Vannacci vowed to answer “in front of appropriate authorities”. 

On top of that, he is being investigated for alleged incitement to racial hatred by Rome’s Prosecutor’s Office.

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“The only incitement made was to reflect and read,” Vannacci’s lawyer, Giorgio Carta, said in February, according to the domestic press. “Galileo Galilei was also tried for his ideas, but 300 years later, he was 'acquitted’.”

Salvini has defended Vannacci on a number of occasions, highlighting his conviction at Lega’s final rally in Rome on Thursday.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, attends a "pro-West" and "anti-fundamentalist" event in Milan, 2023.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, attends a "pro-West" and "anti-fundamentalist" event in Milan, 2023.AP Photo/Luca Bruno

“We have the captain and the general, but you are the infantry,” Salvini told the crowd. He then passed the microphone to Vannacci, who spoke briefly about the D-Day landings 80 years ago before switching back to his main talking points.

“We are no longer free to speak,” Vannacci continued, “we are no longer free because our cities are not safe. We don't like this Europe anymore ... (but) the skies above Rome are blue. The die has been cast.”

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According to Urbinati, while some might dismiss Vannacci as yet another unserious Italian populist, this should not mean that what is happening in the country should be easily written off as peripheral or folkloristic.

“Italy is the lab where you can anticipate what is going to happen in other countries. We had fascism originate here with Benito Mussolini, then populism with Berlusconi.”

“Vannacci and Salvini are conducting a cultural operation in the classical sense, a way of shaping collective minds,” she explained. “We are witnessing a decline of civic relations among individuals across Europe. And the Italian case is a classic case of this new reality.”

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