Countering the Radical Right

After COVID-19: will Matteo Salvini lead Europe’s radical right?

Salvini’s showcasing of religious devotion and rhetoric about the pandemic are part of a political strategy aimed at taking over the reigns of power.

Hans-Georg Betz
20 April 2020
Matteo Salvini, 26 March, 2020
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Picture by Samantha Zucchi /Insidefoto/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Unlike the Rassemblement National (RN), formerly Front National, in France, the radical populist right in Italy has largely managed to hold on to its electorate. In early April, Matteo Salvini’s Lega still polled a bit over 30%, significantly more than any other party. And this despite the fact that in Italy, unlike France, a significant majority of the public expressed confidence in the executive’s work (61% for Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, 56% for his administration). Not to mention the ignominious end of the populist Lega/Cinque Stelle coalition government in August 2019, provoked by Salvini’s calling of a vote of no confidence. At the time, Salvini speculated the dissolution of the government would usher in new elections. New elections would put the Lega in a position to form a new government headed by Salvini. Things did not pan out as expected. Cinque Stelle found a new coalition partner in the socialist left. Giuseppe Conte regained his position, this time heading a center-left coalition, leaving the Lega in the proverbial rain.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, appears to have substantially reshuffled the political cards. To be sure, the botched no-confidence vote cost the Lega a few percentage points in the polls. But the losses have proved to be only temporary. A few weeks ago, Matteo Salvini was almost completely sidelined. With the crisis, he has returned to center stage.

All things considered, the Lega has been one of the winners of the crisis, as has been the socialist left – and the far right. The far right, that’s Fratelli d’Italia, successor to Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale (AN), once a coalition partner, together with the Lega Nord, of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which, in turn, was the successor to Italy’s postwar neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). Alleanza Nazionale was the result of a clean break with Italy’s fascist past. Fratelli d’Italia has no such qualms. The party is led by Giorgia Meloni, who started her political career in the youth organization of the MSI, joined AN and advanced to be appointed Minister of Youth under Berlusconi. Disenchanted with AN, she founded a new party, which attracted a range of right-wing politicians from both AN and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. In the European elections of 2019, Fratelli d’Italia received 6.5 percent of the vote; by the beginning of April 2010, polls had them at around 12 percent, closing in on Cinque Stelle

All things considered, the Lega has been one of the winners of the crisis

Politically, or so the polls suggest, the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in a profound polarization of the Italian political spectrum, reminiscent of what has been happening in the United States. By now, there are two equally strong blocs confronting each other. In the past, the political heart of the right was Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI). Today, FI has lost much of its political luster, garnering hardly more than five percent in the polls. FI has been replaced by the Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi by Matteo Salvini. Salvini’s Lega and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia make up the “hard core” of Italy’s opposition. At the height of his power, Berlusconi was largely dismissed by his fellow European colleagues as a caricature of a statesman – a Witzfigur [laughingstock] as they say in German, an amusing lightweight not to be taken too seriously. Today, in the face of Salvini/Melino, most of Italy’s partners in the EU are likely to feel a bit nostalgic looking back at the days when Berlusconi was the strong man on the Italian right.

Salvini is no Berlusconi. The latter was known as Il cavaliere [the knight]. Against that, Salvini is a “man of the people,” or at least, that’s how he projects himself in the media. And the media, independent of political couleur, have been more than willing to offer him a platform. Salvini’s political ancestor, Umberto Bossi, the iconic founder of the Lega Nord, was known for his crude diction (Le Lega ce l’ha duro), outrageous statements (taking out the “Kalashnikov” and “mitra” i.e., submachine guns), and vacuous threats (most importantly, if no federalism then secession). With Salvini, the Lega has found a leader who easily matches his famous predecessor, particularly with respect to his strident, aggressive rhetoric, hyperbole and intentional fibs (bufale, in Italian).

Under Umberto Bossi, the Lega Nord was a political movement that voiced and reflected the grievances and ressentiments of large parts of the northern most parts of the country, from Piemonte in the west to Veneto in the east. These are the most productive, most industrialized, most innovative and most affluent regions in Italy. The Lega Nord mobilized widespread northern resentment against the political class in Rome charged with “steeling” (Roma ladrona – Rome the big thief) part of the wealth generated in the north (via the tax system) in order to buy electoral support in the south. Under Salvini, the Lega abandoned its northern focus and turned into a pan-Italian party, extending its appeal across the whole of the national territory, including the center and south. If in the past, the party’s core nativist message had been “northerners first”, the new slogan is “Italians first (Prima gli italiani).”

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Both the party’s new focus on gaining ground in the center and south and its nationalist turn inform Matteo Salvini’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, which has pushed the country to the brink of a national catastrophe. In addition, there is the fact that the two regions most affected by the crisis, Lombardy and Veneto, are administered by the Lega (Milan and Bergamo, the two hotspots in Lombardy, however, have socialist mayors). In short, the situation is complex.

Salvini can claim for himself to have been the first major Italian politician to have warned of the potential dangers the virus might pose to Italy – after two confirmed coronavirus cases in Rome in late January. Both were Chinese tourists. At the time, Salvini was sharply attacked and dismissed by the governing parties, which went to great lengths to downplay the crisis. In late February, when the extent of the crisis should have been clear to all, Italy’s foreign minister continued to insist that it was perfectly safe for tourists and businesspeople to visit the country. Pointing out that the country had an excellent health care system, the minister said that what was important now was to return to “normalcy”. Some ten days later, the government imposed a national lockdown. Another fortnight later, doctors in Italy’s hospitals were forced to decide who could be saved and who would be left to die. The governing parties around Giuseppe Conte stand on more than shaky ground when they charge Salvini with spreading misinformation.

Salvini is a populist. Central to populist mobilization is the appeal to emotions. Populists appeal to the heart instead of the head. This was one of the great contributions of the German-Jewish Marxist philosophers Ernst Bloch to the study of Nazism. Salvini probably never read Bloch, but he instinctively understands the power of emotions, particularly in a country that gave us Giacomo Puccini and Ruggiero. Italy is a Catholic country, home to the center of Catholicism, even if the Vatican is its own sovereign state. As has been the case in the rest of western Europe, religiosity has been on the decline throughout Italy for the past decades, for a number of reasons. The decline has been particularly pronounced in the northern parts of the country, from Milan to Florence. In the rest of the peninsula, Catholicism still continues to inform the lives of a significant number of people, particularly in the south. This might explain the most bizarre aspect of how Salvini has promoted himself over the past several months as a devoted super-Catholic.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Salvini has made his religious devotion a central part of his image and message

It all started in earnest in August 2019, during a speech by Giuseppe Conte in the Italian parliament that harshly criticized Salvini for his confounding politics and religion. At the time, Salvini served as minister of the interior. During Conte’s speech, Salvini took out a rosary and kissed the attached cross, in plain view of the cameras. In the months that followed, Salvini intensified his efforts to project himself as a devote Catholic. In his New Year’s Eve message to his followers, Salvini invoked the “immaculate heart” of the Virgin Mary as the guiding light for Italy during the year to come. Since the beginning of the crisis, Salvini has made his religious devotion a central part of his image and message, on numerous occasions appealing to the Madonna of Medjugorje to pray for Italy. [1]

As the rate of infections has skyrocketed, with Lega-governed Lombardy at the epicenter of the pandemic, Salvini has missed no chance to display his religious devotion. Among the highlights: his reciting a prayer for the victims of Covid-19 (“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord”) while on live TV, which immediately went viral; his evocation for the nth time of the “protection of the immaculate heart of the Virgin Mary” a few days before Easter; and his demand that Italy’s churches be reopened to allow the faithful to celebrate Easter. For, as Salvini maintained, in this situation science was not enough to defeat “this monster” (i.e., the virus). What was also needed was “il buon Dio” [the good Lord].

Salvini’s showcasing of religious devotion is central to a political strategy aimed at gaining enough support in Italy’s next national election to take over the reigns of power. It seeks to appeal to the most conservative, not to say reactionary sectors of Italy’s catholic community – those fervent admirers of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who with equal fervor reject Pope Francis and his message, which fundamentally goes against the Lega’s anti-immigrant position. In addition, John Paul II was known for his uncompromising opposition to central and eastern Europe’s communist regimes. Evoking John Paul, means reminding voters that the governing Partito Democratico emerged in part from Italy’s postwar communist party.

Once the crisis hit Italy full force, the country felt largely abandoned by its EU partners, above all Germany

Salvini’s reinventing himself as a devout catholic (despite the fact that he is divorced, father of two children from two different women, one of whom he never married) serves also to reconfirm the Lega’s traditional self-promotion as Italy’s most unwavering defender of western culture, civilization, and “Judeo-Christian” identity against Islam. This might also explain Salvini’s devotion to the Madonna of Medjugorje. After all, Europe has several major shrines, most notably Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal – both in the European Union. What sets Medjugorje apart is the fact that it is located in a country with a substantial Muslim population, even if Muslims are only slightly majoritarian overall. And it is no secret that the town would prefer to be part of catholic Croatia.

Undoubtedly, once the crisis is over, restrictions are lifted, and life has returned to some measure of normalcy, the Lega is going to continue to make the question of western values and identity a central part of its political program, designed to mobilize public support against the alleged “Islamization” of Europe. Covid-19 has done nothing to diminish the appeal of anti-Islamic rhetoric. At the same time, Covid-19 has opened up new opportunities for populist mobilization, throughout western Europe, but particularly in Italy. Unfortunately, the crisis has exposed once again the severe shortcomings of the European Union. The European Union is supposed to be a Solidargemeinschaft [solidarity community] or so the German government claims. Covid-19 has made it painfully obvious that this is largely a myth. Once the crisis hit Italy full force, the country felt largely abandoned by its EU partners, above all Germany. The most recent point of contention has been the question of Eurobonds, which the Italians strongly favor against fierce resistance from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland. The latter countries have pushed for using the European Stability Mechanism (EMS), against strong resistance by Italy which objects to the fiscal and other conditions imposed by Brussuels.

There was a strong sense of disenchantment with the European Union and that Italy was still not taken seriously

As a result, support for the European Union and its institutions have reached a new low in the country. In mid-March, two thirds of Italians said they had no confidence in the European Union. In early April, fewer than 30% of the population expressed confidence in the European Union, and a mere quarter in the European Commission and the European Central Bank. At the same time, only a bit more than a third of Italians thought that the Italian government managed to get its voice heard in Europe. In short, there was a strong sense of disenchantment with the European Union and an equally strong sense that Italy, which, after all, had been one of the initial members of the European Communities, was still not taken seriously.

The country that is at the epicenter of Italians’ wrath and disgust is Germany. As was the case in 2008, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Germany once again is seen as a bully, cajoling the weaker members of the European Union to fall into line. In early April, 70% of the Italian public thought that Germany was using the crisis to “strangle” Italy and get the upper hand in the country. At the same time, the Italian public expressed a new appreciation of China, which was the only country to extend a helping hand to the country. When asked in early April, with which non-European country Italy should develop closer relations, more than a third mentioned China; only 30 percent, the United States.

Salvini has never rejected the notion that he is a populist. Quite the contrary; he embraced it. Populists are acutely aware of the flow of public opinion. Italian public opinion reflects a profound disenchantment with the European Union and its most influential members – most notably Germany. Under the circumstances, the Lega’s central programmatic points for the immediate future almost write themselves. Under Umberto Bossi, the European Union could always count on Umberto Bossi. With Salvini, this is no longer the case. For Salvini, the EU is nothing more than a “nest of serpents and jackals” who care about little more than their own interests. For Salvini, the conclusion was clear and obvious. As soon as the crisis was over, Italy should follow the UK and get out of the European Union.

In recent weeks, it has been suggested that Covid-19 might spell the end of populist politics.

Much will depend on the current Italian government’s ability not only to deal with the crisis at home, but also with Italy’s partners in the EU

Matteo Savini’s ability to hold on to a substantial portion of the Lega’s pre-crisis electorate suggests that these speculations are premature. On the contrary, the Covid-19 crisis has opened up a range of new opportunities for populist actors astute enough to seize them. In the past, in western Europe, the French radical populist right served as the point of reference for radical right-wing populist parties across the continent. Given Salvini’s continued strong position reflected in polls, this might possibly change. Salvini has shown that ideational consistency, emotional appeal and, above all, provocative showmanship make up a “winning formula” which has the potential to resonate among significant parts of the electorate.

Much will depend on the current Italian government’s ability not only to deal with the crisis at home, but also with Italy’s partners in the EU. So far, neither has been ground for much hope. At the moment it seems, Matteo Salvini might emerge as what he always wanted to be – the new point of reference of western Europe’s radical populist right, the man who shows that Italians should be taken seriously. This, of course, is what Mussolini was all about.

To be sure, this is not to suggest that Salvini represents a revival of fascism. Fascism was a totalitarian ideology centered upon an all-encompassing state, which aimed at controlling every aspect of the individual’s life. Historically, the Lega was always fundamentally opposed to Italy’s fascist past. However, fascism was also a response to a profound sense that Italians were not taken seriously, that they were dismissed as emotion-driven romantics, who preferred la dolce vita to “virile” endeavors, such as pursuing national glory.

Consciously or not, Salvini’s populist rhetoric builds on this part of the fascist tradition, aimed at “making Italy great again.” In the current context, this means for Salvini nothing less than to claim the position of primus inter pares until recently held by the French populist radical right. Marine Le Pen is warned.

[1] Medjugorje is a small town in Hercegovina, close to the border of Croatia. In June 1981, six children – four girls and two boys – claimed they had seen the image of the Virgin Mary in the evening sky. From then on, the Virgin appeared every evening, talking to the children and praying with them. To this day, the Vatican has refused to officially authenticate the events; yet a year ago, the Pope decided to authorize dioceses and parishes to organize pilgrimages to the shrine. By then, Medjugorje had seen around a million pilgrims every year, visiting the shrine on their own initiative – and filling the pockets of the natives.

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