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Matteo Salvini: The comeback kid of Italian politics

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When Alan Fabbri was growing up near the northern Italian
city of Ferrara in the 1990s he engaged in an act of teenage rebellion that
surprised his friends: he decided not to become a communist. As a 19-year-old
student he signed up to the rightwing northern separatist party the Northern League,
breaking not only with the political mainstream of his staunchly leftwing
region of Emilia-Romagna but also going against the traditions of his own
family, some of whom had fought as partisans against Nazi Germany. 

Last year he ran as the now rebranded League candidate for
mayor of Ferrara and won. The result left observers across Italy stunned.
A city that had been controlled by Italian left since the end of Benito
Mussolini’s fascist regime — and for the majority of those 73 years by the
Italian Communist party — had fallen to Matteo Salvini’s anti-migrant
Italian nationalist movement.

Now with regional elections for the legislative
assembly taking place this month in Emilia-Romagna, Mr Salvini, who since
taking over in 2013 has remodelled the party from its northern separatist roots
to become a pan-Italian rightwing party, is aiming to stage a huge upset by
seizing control of an area traditionally regarded as the spiritual home of
Italian socialism.

Opinion polls are showing the rightwing coalition candidate,
the 43-year-old League senator Lucia Borgonzoni, may be able to smash through
Italy’s red wall. She is neck and neck with the incumbent centre-left
Democratic party (PD) president of the region, Stefano Bonaccini. PD-Five Star
pact at risk Mr Salvini is bullish. “Let it be clear, we are going to win
here,” he said on the campaign trail last week in Modena.

With Mr Salvini’s party far ahead of its rivals in
national polls, new elections could then see the League leader sweep to
power as Italy’s prime minister. “If the PD lose in Emilia-Romagna, it 100 per
cent has the potential to bring down the national government and set Salvini on
course to become prime minister,” says Daniele Albertazzi, an academic at the
University of Birmingham and expert on the history of the League. “It really is
too close to call.”

Victory in Emilia-Romagna would underline Mr Salvini’s rapid
recovery since deciding last summer to launch the biggest political gamble of
his career by bringing down his party’s then-coalition government from an
Italian beach dressed in swimming trunks and with a Mojito in hand.

Soon after declaring that he was ending his alliance with
the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the League leader’s bid to force new
national elections and become prime minister backfired. His spurned ex-partners
struck up an unlikely pact with the PD, forming a new coalition government
and banishing Mr Salvini back into opposition.

Since then, the national popularity of League has
consolidated, with opinion polls consistently showing it is comfortably the
most popular party in Italy. In October a centre right coalition led by the
League won the central region of Umbria from the PD, with Mr Salvini
immediately setting his sights on the bigger prize of Emilia-Romagna. 

A talented and relentless campaigner, Mr Salvini’s return to
opposition has suited him as he travels up and down Italy attacking the PD-Five
Star coalition as it lurches from one political crisis to the next. A League
victory in Emilia-Romagna, League politicians hope, should be enough to push
Italy’s fragile coalition government over the edge.

“This coalition is already so fragile that the only thing
gluing it together is their fear of Salvini,” says Erik Jones, professor of
European studies and international political economy at the School of Advanced
International Studies in Bologna. “If they lose it is hard to see how they make
it through the spring.”

How did an area that for Italy’s entire postwar history has
been regarded as the most dyed in the wool regione rosse — with a
proud tradition of resistance to far-right politics — reach a point where Mr
Salvini’s security and anti-migration platform could triumph? “What we are
seeing is a process going on, which is the same in many others parts of Europe,
where people are no longer politically loyal to the identity that defined their
fathers and grandfathers,” Mr Albertazzi says.

Emilia-Romagna’s economy is performing strongly, posting one
of Italy’s fastest regional growth rates in 2018, according to the region’s
chamber of commerce, while its unemployment rate is almost half the national
average.

This, however, has not stemmed broader national anger at
economic insecurity and immigration, which Mr Salvini has tapped into. Giorgio
Bennetti, a 35-year-old sweets seller with a stall in Ferrara’s centre,
believes that many voters are willing to switch to the right to express a
general political dissatisfaction. Local issues, such as the collapse of the
Ferrara savings bank — 130,000 investors lost their savings — have also given
voters reason to want to punish the PD, which was in charge both locally and
nationally when the rescue happened in 2015.

“This is a protest vote, people don’t believe that the left is working for them anymore,” Mr Bennetti says. “My grandmother used to say that people have no problem changing their shirts from red to black if they need to.” The region also suffers from a sharp divide between the wealthy centre of Bologna, the region’s largest city and home to the oldest university in Europe, and poorer and more agricultural peripheral areas where the League has been steadily building support over the past decade.

source: ft.com

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