2015 07 – Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Matteo Renzi, centre-left Prime Minister of Italy since February 2014, and Matteo Salvini, leader of Lega Nord (Northern League), should represent different ends of the political spectrum. But Renzi’s Partito Democratico’s (Pd) pact with Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia (Fi) alienated the left wing of his party as well as many voters. However, it enabled him to pass Italicum, which changed the electoral system, as well as The Jobs Act, which reduced worker’s rights. Only Renzi’s deliberate choice of Berlusconi’s old foe Sergio Mattarella as President, to replace the almost-nonagenarian Napolitano, finally carved an unbridgeable  gap between this odd alliance. For the past few months Renzi has been struggling to impose radical changes to teachers’ contracts. Teachers have reacted strongly to the threat of short-term contracts and even to the proposal to make their summer break an unpaid period.

Recent Regional elections in May 2015 surprised Italy with some interesting shifts in electoral support. Silvio Berlusconi’s Fi party had also been unsettled by his pact (Patto del Nazareno) with Renzi and divisions had opened there as well. Importantly the old chancer is now tiring and his political strength has weakened visibly. As a result Fi did not do well.  However, the Lega-backed Fi candidate in Tuscany shocked by taking 20% of the Tuscan vote. This was interpreted as a warning to Renzi because, as he was previously Mayor of Florence, Tuscany is his stronghold. There was also a particularly strong Lega showing in the Veneto where Luca Zaia took over 50% of the votes. Beppe Grillo’s M5s did not do well anywhere. Although Renzi’s Pd party won a majority of the votes there were clear signs of a leaching of support. Analysis of the Regional results suggested that Salvini’s Lega took votes from the right and also from M5s.

Traditionally Berlusconi’s party and Lega have cooperated and it is suggested that Salvini now sees himself as a successor to Berlusconi. There is no other politician on the right who has the ability to attract a following. Salvini’s background is that he didn’t complete his university studies, was involved in the Movimento Giovani Padani (the young northern separatists), and was also on Milan City Council from 1993 – 2012.

Similar in age to Renzi, the two have only their first name in common. Salvini can be seen to be the political heir to the colourful Umberto Bossi, the Lega leader who resigned after corruption allegations in 2012. The Guardian summed up Salvini as bombastic, and he is deliberately and shockingly direct, Il Fatto Quotidiano said that he doesn’t use half-tones. Renzi’s party call Salvini a jackal. Salvini is contemptuous of Renzi who he sees as a pawn of Europe . He is not alone as he echoes the increasing resentment, distrust and sense of humiliation of many Italians who perceive that Renzi allowed Europe to take over the control and administration of their country. A man, says Salvini in his forthright way, “who would even tax f—ing”.

Salvini clearly sees himself as an anti-establishment non conformist who stresses his credentials by wearing tee shirts and hoodies. He works to make his message simple and aims to appeal to ordinary people in a strongly anti-intellectual way. Huffington Post of 28 Feb quotes him ridiculing intellectually cultured pursuits. He goes on to say, “the men of the left read a bag of books but sadly don’t understand them. I read two and I understand two”.

Il Fatto of 6 June defines Salvini’s promotional tactics and shows him to be a highly shrewd political operator. The article says that he has sensed and appreciated the growing alienation with politics and politicians in Italy as well as wider Europe. He knows that he can use this in a way that other politicians can’t compete with. Beppe Grillo’s M5s party had tapped into the disenchantment when they first started, and their rise to prominence was swift. But their tactics eventually failed because they had not understood how to promote themselves in an effective way. They made limited use of new media. They did not appear on TV. The elected representatives, bizarrely, were not permitted to give interviews and Grillo publicised M5s by appearing at big, ancient-Rome style public rallies. But he and his party, however hard he tried to avoid it, has become identified with the establishment.

The article goes on to pinpoint Salvini’s winning difference. His message is disseminated through the most popular and well-used medium – il telefonino – the mobile phone. The idea behind this is frighteningly clear. He aims to grab the attention of the most impressionable people, even those with limited reading skills use their mobiles for text messaging and imaging. So Salvini shouts his short messages like adverts, spreading them loudly and frequently on Facebook, YouTube and other platforms. The message is obviously not profound but Salvini sees that its strength is the simplicity of its slogan. It “hits where it must hit”. This kind of rabble-rousing is reminiscent of the way that demagogues such as Mussolini and Hitler capitalised on the festering grievances that ordinary people were powerless to change.

Unsurprisingly Salvini focuses on the current Italian problems of Europe and immigration. The same Il Fatto article on 6 June paraded some of his forthright views on the EU in his characteristically abbreviated form:“ It is the Forth Reich, the new Nazis”, “The Union of Soviet Europe” and “The Technocratic dictatorship”. His alienation from the EU has not stopped him being a member of the European Parliament and he is currently allied with Marine Le Pen. Salvini says that the attitude to the new right should be, as reported in the FT on 2 Dec, “we need to look it straight in the eyes without fear.” As an aside, Le Pen and Salvini once danced together at a celebration and Marine apparently said that she was in ecstasies. Renzi joked, “Bravo, I imagine its not easy!”.

Salvini is quite unique in being able to tap into current commonly expressed fears. Both Salvini and fellow Lega member Luca Zaia, who recently topped the Regional polls in Veneto, have trenchant views on immigrants. Zaia said that his area of Italy was refusing to take any more immigrants. Following this he was quoted as saying that it was an “exodus on a biblical scale”. Salvini made  remarks in a similar vein, particularly that all boats should be stopped before they leave their port of departure. Meanwhile, the political establishment’s attitude was to appear to be welcoming to the displaced and suffering. Salvini calls them hypocrites for the way that their attitude attempts to shame the Italian public from rejecting the influx and causing civil unrest. On Facebook he said that his political adversaries should “take a kick in the ass”.

His political adversaries were then served another surprise. The Lega Nord is based in the north of Italy where it started as a separatist movement. But, with increasing Italian antagonism to Europe and to immigrants, Salvini has hit upon the idea of organising in other parts of Italy. This new party would then be in a position to threaten the current parties on a national scale. Even as far back as November 2014 Marco Venturini was writing in Il Fatto  to say that a party restructuring might be forthcoming. Such a profound change, Venturi suggested, should be recognised with a change of name in much the same way as happened with Tony Blair’s New Labour.