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Matteo Salvini, Italy’s New Strongman

By: Gaither Stewart


As shown in the permissive attitude of Italians toward Fascism last century, also contemporary Italians perceive of a strong and charismatic leader as a shield against disorder and their inherent inclination toward anarchy. Someone to protect them against their own nature. Promises of more police and more security are reassuring to those Italians who see today’s enemy in immigrants and in the European Union with all its rules … including its Euro currency. When a legitimate government to control their inclination toward anarchy goes missing, some form of servility to a powerful individual returns. Strongmen emerge from that conundrum deep in the Italian psyche: anarchy or a strongman at the helm. Italy todays seems to be following the same familiar old script.

The new man is 45-year old Matteo Salvini, Secretary-leader of the Lega (formerly the Lega Nord). In the new Rome government, Salvini appears as co-Vice Premier and simultaneously Minister of the Interior, the most powerful ministry in Italy’s political system. Since Salvini is largely unknown outside Italy, many observers are asking Who is Matteo Salvini? To answer that the observer must pass through a veritable labyrinth of personalities, political parties, sudden changes of direction and ideology and history to grasp even a few of the subtleties and fine points of Italian politics that not even all Italian want to grasp.

And here, in order to get a handle on Matteo Salvini and the history taking place today in Italy, in Europe, the observer must first step back and consider the context in which political events are unraveling, not only in Italy, but in all of Europe and much of the world. Non-Europeans are familiar with the Catalan bid for autonomy from Madrid; readers will also recall the bloody fight of the Basques for the same, the same battle which over a half century ago shook Belgium as Flemish people fought for independence from Francophone Belgium. The Lega Nord was founded on a similar political demand: secession from Italy and Rome.

In the beginning there were three men plus one. There was Umberto Bossi (b. Lombardy Region, 1941) who founded the Lega Lombarda in 1984, then united the various Leagues in the North in the Lega Nord, the Northern League, in 1989. There was Roberto Marone, born in Varese, who was always Bossi’s second, except for a year, 2012-2013 when he became Secretary after Bossi resigned following a judicial inquest concerning Bossi and his family suspected of corruption. As the Lega Nord entered national politics also Marone was Minister of the Interior. There was the kid, Matteo Salvini, (b. March 9, 1973 in Milano), who joined the Lega Nord in 1990 at age 17. And later there was the intruder, the popular Flavio Tosi, mayor of Verona and one of the chiefs of the Lega in Veneto, expelled by Salvini for insubordination to the Lega’s changing political lines.

Umberto Bossi’s political line was flexible, more pragmatic than strategic, vacillating between federalism and secessionism of the area referred to as Padania, the swath of flat lands south of the Alps chiefly in Lombardy. Bossi’s Lega Nord entered and exited a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, according to circumstances, sometimes it seemed on whim. He did a brilliant balancing act between maintaining the northern image and coalition with Berlusconi on a national level. And he was the undisputed leader from 1989-2012. Italian analysts had never agreed on the ideological nature of the Lega Nord during Bossi’s reign—left or right? The major communist leader, Massimo D’Alema, once labeled the Lega Nord a party of the left: “It is our rib.” In any case Bossi aimed at separation of northern Padania and recognition of a Republic of the North, a line which in the 1996 elections garnered 10% of the national vote for the Lega Nord which got 59 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 27 senators in Rome. Bossi used a crude, populist language and folksy ways, with an abundance of symbols and rituals and mystery (like Nazis), he loved secret meetings of the “magic circle” of the first party founders in the hinterlands of Milano and Bergamo and the great assembly of the Lega people at Pontida in the countryside near Bergamo. Yet when I and five other journalists interviewed him in his headquarters in Milano he was extremely knowledgeable and well-spoken, answering all our questions spontaneously and elaborating on both national and international politics with ease and fluency.

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