Salvini, Once Dominant, Finds His Far-Right Party in Retreat in Italy

Right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini leaves a polling station, in Milan, Italy, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Little more than a year ago, he was the far-right Italian leader who was tormenting European politics with his not-so-subtle allusions to Benito Mussolini and tough-guy tactics of expelling immigrants.

So much has changed. On Sunday and Monday, Italian voters sent a clear signal: Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former interior minister and the politician who once seemed destined to become Italy’s prime minister, appears to no longer be seen as Italy’s savior.

In elections for seven of Italy’s 20 regions, Salvini’s nationalist far-right League party failed to make the gains it hoped for and found its vote declining in southern regions. Most significantly, Salvini’s candidate for the Tuscan presidency lost.

Salvini was hoping for a major upset in Tuscany, a stronghold of left-wing politics, and to be celebrating the victory with a speech in Florence on Monday night. Instead, he remained in Milan, where he held a dull news conference during which he nonetheless claimed victory and rejected suggestions there are doubts within the League about his leadership.

Daniele Albertazzi, a University of Birmingham politics professor, said the League’s performance was “weak across the board.”

“Importantly, Salvini fails (again) to conquer a stronghold of the left (this time it’s Tuscany),” Albertazzi said on Twitter. “He failed in Emilia-Romagna months ago, after turning that election into a referendum on himself. He’s failed this time, too, despite trying to step back a little and framing it as a regional election.”

Still, the elections cannot be viewed as a success story for Italy’s left-leaning parties either. In Marche, a southern region on the Adriatic Sea, a far-right politician with the Brothers of Italy, Francesco Acquaroli, won. His party is an offshoot of a neo-fascist party, the Italian Social Movement. The region had been ruled for about 20 years by center-left governors. The Brothers of Italy, led by an increasingly popular Giorgia Meloni, overtook Salvini’s League as the party of choice in the other southern regions of Campania and Puglia, according to Italian media.

Separately, Italian voters cast votes in a referendum to cut the number of parliamentarians from 945 to 600. Overwhelmingly, about 70% of Italians voted in favor of the cuts, a major win for the 5-Star Movement, a maverick anti-establishment party that took over the helm of Italy’s national government after winning the 2018 elections and forming an unlikely and rocky coalition with Salvini.

Since seizing power, though, the 5-Stars have struggled electorally and have suffered a string of defeats. The 5-Stars saw their popularity plummet as Salvini took center stage as interior minister. Salvini blocked humanitarian ships from bringing refugees and asylum seekers to Italy and passed anti-immigration legislation. After he was stripped of parliamentary immunity this year, he faces criminal charges for ordering the blockade of humanitarian ships.

In the summer of 2019, sensing he could force new elections and become prime minister, Salvini quit the coalition with the 5-Stars. Instead of the government toppling, the 5-Stars formed a new coalition with a former foe, the establishment center-left Democratic Party.

That coalition remains in power, but it is showing deep cracks and it is seen as an ineffective and weak government unable to tackle Italy’s difficult economic troubles caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Italy is heavily indebted and the European Union is deeply worried about a cataclysmic Italian default on its loans.

For now, though, the election results brought calm to financial markets and European political circles. Another source of comfort for pro-European forces was the electoral success of the Democratic Party in the regional elections.

Its candidates won the governorships in Tuscany, Puglia and Campania and the party registered gains elsewhere, a sign that it may be rebounding after suffering a humiliating defeat in the 2018 elections. The Democratic Party was in office for four years prior to those elections.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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