In the summer of 2019, Matteo Salvini was one of the most powerful men in Italy.
The leader of the far-right League party was seen by some as a sovereignist messiah, others feared he would become a Mediterranean Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister and the EU’s enfant terrible.
But today Salvini, who also sits in the Senate, faces tough questions about his future.
The recent local elections have been a bit of a fiasco for the League, although it has remained strong in northeastern Italy, as have other right-wing and far-right parties, like the Forward Italy of the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Nationalist Brothers of Italy.
But elections aside, Salvini’s big dilemma is what to do with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
When the League joined the coalition led by Draghi, Salvini had to tone down the fiery, anti-EU rhetoric that some loved him so much for.
And that weakened its appeal.
Some of his former voters now support Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, the only major opposition party.
“When he was [Italian] Minister of the Interior, between 2018 and 2019, Salvini was very good at focusing only on immigration, with exaggerated tones, acting almost like an opposition politician rather than a member of the government ”, Antonella Seddone , professor of politics at the University of Turin, mentioned.
“Now he’s back in government, but it’s not the League leading the game, the party is following Draghi,” she said.
Salvini also faces threats from within his own party.
Some of the big names in the League, such as its Minister of Economic Development, Giancarlo Giorgetti, and the regional governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, have lost faith in the former brand, according to sources.
“Salvini was good to revive the League after years of decline, but now we need more collegial management. The League has many excellent men with significant administrative skills,” an influential League contact told EU. , who asked not to be named. .
“In the summer you go to the sea, in the winter you ski,” the contact added, hinting at a change of direction.
Salvini tried to regain some of his populist luster before the regional elections.
He attacked the Draghi government over taxation and immigration.
But still, Salvini seemed to simply “switch” between Draghi and himself, leaving voters “perplexed”, said Marco Follini, a deputy prime minister of the Berlusconi era.
Salvini has a Plan B in case he becomes a lame duck in the Coalition or dies in the League, according to Italian investigative magazine Espresso.
This consists in forming its own party, called “Italians first”, with sovereignists and nationalists.
But while even some in the League were plotting his demise, to others it seemed an unlikely scenario, given that he still had trusted supporters in the party.
“They need Salvini: let’s not forget that he reduced the party from four to 39% [in polls], although it is now back to 20%, “said Carlo Cunegato, a local left-wing politician from the Veneto region.
Some close to Giorgetti of the League believe that the party should return to its roots of regionalist opposition.
But that would be a strategic mistake for Marcello Pera, Italian philosopher and President of the Senate of the Berlusconi era.
“The League’s problem today is about who is identity,” Pera said.
He should stay away from “the petty day-to-day opposition” and become more eligible at the national level, he noted.
“The League needs a real national identity, more modern, pro-European and governmental. Those who want to revive a regionalist party, for example the group close to Giorgetti, are wrong. We need a national party, not a return to the valleys, ”Pera said.
And so Salvini faces difficult questions.
He cannot be both Draghi’s junior partner and the valley demagogue.
He cannot continue to transform the League into a national force and be the bad boy in Italian and European politics at the same time.
And even if Salvini wanted to regain his populist mojo, it remained to be seen whether he would succeed, as the political scene had evolved from 2019, according to a deputy from a center-right Italian party, who also asked no ‘to be named.
“Old populist demagogues like Trump, Bolsonaro or Farage are almost a thing of the past,” the MP said, referring to former US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and British Brexiteer Nigel Farage.
“To survive, populism will have to become more sophisticated, as is happening in France, where Zemmour is the new rising star. I know Salvini, and I don’t think he is capable of such an evolution,” added the deputy, referring to Éric Zemmour, French television personality and far-right politician.
Meanwhile, Salvini and Draghi met face to face on Thursday.
And it looks like things went well.
Salvini said he would continue to support the former head of the European Central Bank and Goldman Sachs investment banker. In return, Draghi would have guaranteed that there would be no tax hike.
And whatever Salvini did next, some League voters seemed more interested in what Draghi could give them than what he got from their old identity.
“We must lower taxes from north to south, for all Italian companies. There is no point looking back, let’s look to the future,” said Matteo, a small businessman from Vicenza, near Venice. , and voter of the League.