, Rome, Italy, Feb 24 – With his “Italians first”rallying cry and his tub-thumping against Islam and a “migrant invasion”, Matteo Salvini has rebranded himself and his party, aiming to lead a far-right surge in Italy’s elections on March 4.
Salvini, who will turn 45 soon after the elections, has changed the once secessionist Northern League by removing the location from the party’s name. He has even made moves to gain votes in southern Italy, until recently enemy territory for what is now simply named “The League”.
He’s done so by railing against the euro, Brussels and the over 690,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy since 2013.
On a recent campaign stop at Matera, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, Salvini promised “order, rules, cleanliness” and lamented that “immigration is out of control”.
“I’m very happy to bring our battle for security, identity and autonomy to 60 million Italians and not anymore just a part of the country,” he said.
Born and raised in Milan in 1973, Salvini joined the then-Northern League in 1990, aged just 17, and rose through the ranks of a party that since its inception had insulted poorer southern Italians as “lazy”, and “parasites” draining wealth from the “hard-working” north.
“The tricolore (Italian flag) doesn’t represent me,” Salvini said in 2014. “At home I’ve only got the flag of Lombardy and Milan.
Back in 2009 he suggested that the Milan metro should have reserved seats for Milanese.
“Within 10 years we’re going to be a minority so we’ll have to reserve seats on the metro like we used to with the disabled and war-wounded,” he said.
– Online power –
Salvini bangs on his anti-immigrant drum to his 640,000 followers on Twitter and more than two million on Facebook, where every day he publishes posts, live videos and photos of his meetings — what he gets up to and even what he eats.
While he also likes to show his pride in his two children, 14-year-old Federico and Mirta, five, he is less happy to discuss his complicated love life.
Currently living with glamorous model and TV presenter Elisa Isoardi, his children come from past relationships with ex-wife Fabrizia Ieluzzi, a political journalist, and his previous girlfriend Giulia Martinelli.
Regardless, his strong online presence has helped to create a political persona capable of dragging The League to 13 percent in the polls, roughly five points behind right-wing coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy), which is on course for 18 percent.
That’s a huge jump from the four percent the party scored in the 2013 elections, after which Salvini took over the leadership.
Salvini routed party founder Umberto Bossi in party elections in the wake of the 2013 poll disaster, due in part to a 2012 corruption scandal that saw Bossi, his son and former treasurer Francesco Belsito convicted of misappropriation of party funds.
– Anti-EU alliances –
Salvini immediately pushed the party away from its secessionism roots and towards nationalism, forging alliances with anti-EU far-right forces like France’s National Front and Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders.
“We are ready to work with other European countries for a possible co-ordinated exit,” he told foreign reporters recently.
In the meantime the party has dropped the anti-southern slurs — officially at least — swapping them for rants about what he calls “irregular” migrants and the “danger” of Islam.
Salvini has made conciliatory noises towards the five million foreigners officially residing in Italy, saying they can “consider themselves Italians”.
Nonetheless he has continued to keep immigration high on the agenda as the elections approach, aligning himself with other figures on the far-right in blaming “an invasion” for the racist gun rampage carried out in Macerata earlier this month.
A committed fascist shot six Africans in revenge for the murder of a young girl, allegedly at the hands of a group of Nigerians.
“It’s clear that out of control immigration … will bring about social conflict,” Salvini said.
“I can’t wait to go into government so I can bring back security, social justice and serenity to the whole of Italy.”