A chair for two. Long standard-bearer of Italian nationalism, Matteo Salvini was overtaken on his right by Giorgia Meloni and could become the mainstay of their coalition after the legislative elections on September 25. The latest polls released last week put Meloni’s post-fascist formation, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), at more than 24%, almost twice as much as Salvini’s League.
Such a result on election day would allow the dashing quadra to claim the post of Prime Minister and set the course for their coalition, which also includes Forza Italia (FI, liberal right) of former head of government Silvio Berlusconi.
Bitter potion for Salvini
For Salvini, propelled to power after winning 17% of the votes in the 2018 legislative elections and then 34% in the European elections the following year, the potion would be bitter. A key question will be whether the League leader, a former deputy prime minister, can agree to be a second knife or play the troublemaker on issues – the war in Ukraine, for example – on which he disagrees with Meloni.
From his harsh criticism of the European Union, Muslims and Roma, from his assumed Catholicism – he proudly wears a cross around his neck – to his shirtless exhibitions on the beach, Salvini, 49, has cultivated an image of a man People.
He has managed to turn his once-breakaway party – previously known as the Northern League – into a national force, fueled by anger at Brussels and the tens of thousands of migrants who land on Italian shores every year.
Meloni takes the light
Yet in recent years he has been eclipsed by Meloni, who shares his Euroscepticism and “Italians first” creed but, despite his party’s neo-fascist roots, wants to present Italy’s European partners with a face smooth as a “Christian mother” while keeping her outspokenness. “Salvini made serious mistakes, which tarnished his image”, analysis for AFP Lorenzo De Sio, professor of political science at the Luiss University of Rome.
He is thus criticized for his “arrogance” when he tried to bring down his coalition government in 2019, in the hope of forcing new elections after his large victory in the European elections, only to find himself in the opposition.
A key factor in Meloni’s rise was also his decision to stay out of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s grand coalition formed in February 2021. Fratelli d’Italia was the only party not to join, granting him status of outsider who attracted many disgruntled voters.
“Meloni was free to vote with the government whenever she wanted, for example on Ukraine, but at the same time to attack the government to preserve her identity,” according to Lorenzo De Sio.
Eurosceptic, FdI no longer demands an exit from the single currency, and Giorgia Meloni has strongly supported the European bloc’s sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. By contrast, Salvini – a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin – criticized the sanctions, saying they hurt Europe more than Russia, by causing energy prices to spike.
“Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi will be difficult partners within the coalition, ready to do anything to regain visibility after a [probable] defeat on election day, highlighting political differences,” predicts Wolfango Piccoli of consultancy Teneo.
Lorenzo De Sio notes, however, that if Salvini had something to gain by bringing down the government in 2019, that’s not the case today. And that the Italian right has shown itself in the past to be able to put its disputes on hold in order to stay in power.