Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far right, has seen his popularity drop as the coronavirus pandemic has drowned out his anti-immigrant message, but his League party remains a potent threat to the government.
The big man with the beard is much less visible in the media after being almost omnipresent last year, until he brought his own coalition government down in a botched bid to become prime minister.
The then-deputy prime minister and interior minister collapsed the League’s coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) in a power grab that turned into a major tactical blunder.
His former M5S allies instead in September formed a government with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), sending Salvini into his more habitual role in opposition.
Since then, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s approval rating has soared to 60% while Salvini’s has plummeted to 30%.
Around 26% of Italians now say they would vote for his League party, down from its 34% score in 2019’s European Parliament elections, but remaining Italy’s single most popular party.
“His favourite theme of immigration has been pushed to the background by the coronavirus crisis,” explains Vincenzo Galasso of Milan’s Bocconi University.
Salvini has also flip-flopped on the epidemic — initially being against lockdown before making a U-turn in the face of the devastating facts.
“He wasn’t able to differentiate himself from what the government was doing, which he always did previously with the immigration question,” said Galasso.
During the virus crisis, Italy decided to make many illegal migrants legal, a move that did not provoke any kind of outcry.
Even within his own party, the Veneto region’s president Luca Zaia has seen his popularity rise spectacularly thanks to his exemplary management of the crisis in the hard-hit northern region.
But Salvini is determined to claw his way back to power, renewing his call for early elections, accusing the government of “not having clear ideas”.
“Let’s ask the people to vote for a government that will last five years and has clear ideas,” Salvini said in an interview published Monday in the daily La Stampa.
“This government… must go,” Salvini said, adding that infighting was paralysing the coalition.
He has also effectively started campaigning again, travelling last week to Campania in the south ahead of central regions Marche and Abruzzo this week.
Salvini tried to remobilise his troops along with Giorgia Meloni, the head of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, with a rally in Rome on 2 June but it did not go according to plan.
“People didn’t respect social distancing rules at all,” said Alessandro Giacone, historian at Bologna University.
“This was roundly criticised, giving the impression of a leader who is not always prudent.”
Meloni herself has seen her party’s popularity shoot up from 4.3% of votes in 2018 elections to 14.6% of voter intentions today.
Just 36% of Italians say today that they would vote for the ruling PD and M5S, compared to the 51% they garnered in the 2018 elections.
Giacone says the League and other right-wing parties would probably win snap elections.
“Everything depends on what kind of alliance Salvini will make,” he said.
“He’s hesitating between two positions. He would like to form a sovereigntist anti-European alliance (with Meloni) but there are those within his party who want a more moderate position,” along with former centre-right prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, says Giacone.
That’s why “his political position is not very clear at the moment.”