ROME — The message was lost on no one when Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s xenophobic Northern League, slid a black T-shirt over his button-down white work shirt to address a crowd in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Saturday, calling for the overthrow of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in one of the most visceral anti-government, anti-Europe demonstrations the Italian capital has seen in years.
The square was full of followers, many from Italy’s extreme right group Casa Pound, which has been compared to Greece’s Golden Dawn party. Some waved the Russian flag, others held signs with black-and-white photos of Italy’s favorite fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, whose Black Shirts proved to be the most influential political force in Italian history. Flags with the black Celtic cross—a universal sign for neo-Nazis—fluttered in the wind above the crowd. “The problem isn’t Renzi,” Salvini said. “Renzi is a pawn. Renzi is a dumb slave at the disposal of nameless people who want to control all of our lives from Brussels.” The crowd roared.
Salvini, at 42, is a charismatic—albeit unnervingly intense—political figure whose growing popularity is setting him on a trajectory toward a power showdown with the differently charismatic Renzi, who came to power in a quintessentially Italian power play last February. Salvini cut his political teeth as a youth leader in Italy’s Northern League party in Milan, which has long held openly xenophobic, anti-Euro, separatist views. Salvini was elected to lead the main party in 2013 after Umberto Bossi reluctantly handed over the reins amid numerous unseemly corruption scandals and failing health.
Lest there be any doubt about just what Salvini stands for, it should be noted that his honored guest at Saturday’s protest was supposed to be Marine Le Pen, head of France’s National Front who had invited him to address her rally in November and with whom Salvini shares a vast number of views. Le Pen apparently had last-minute commitments that kept her in France, but she has emphatically endorsed the Italian leader in the past. “He sends me into ecstasy,” Le Pen told a National Front rally last November when she introduced him. “He is an extremely brave man. Would he make a good prime minister? Why not?”
In December, Salvini raised eyebrows in Italy when he posed semi-nude on the cover of Oggi magazine, in which he presented himself as the “alternative to Renzi” and bragged that he still carried the defunct Italian lire bills in his wallet as a not so silent protest to the euro currency.
He is not afraid of Silvio Berlusconi, and unlike his cohorts in Europe’s far-right reaches, he is softer than most on gay rights, entertaining the idea of civil unions, but standing firm against gay marriage and same-sex adoptions. Married twice with children from each marriage, he describes himself as a hopeless romantic. “I’m a teddy bear, impulsive, ready to go to Paris with a ring” when he falls in love, he told Oggi.
But what is most likely to push him to the forefront in Italy is the fact that he has managed to embrace some of Northern League’s tenets, including its tough anti-immigration stance, while distancing himself from the separatist roots of the party that have always kept the Northern League in the margins. In several opinion polls ahead of Saturday’s rally, Salvini had nudged close to Renzi in both approval ratings and popularity. For several months, the second-place spot has been divided among a vast array of politicians. Salvini horning in on Renzi is a notable move toward a power position in the country.
What could push Salvini closer to power is the way in which he is redefining his political party. Since its inception, the Northern League has seen the enemy as “Rome” and the poor southern regions of the country. Under Salvini, the enemy is Europe. He laments austerity in much the same way Alexis Tsipras did to win the helm of Greece. Salvini is also courting southern Italians who have suffered the most at the hands of Italy’s austerity measures. At Saturday’s demonstration, he claimed there were more than 50 buses from Italy’s poor southern regions full of people who came to show their support. He has promised to open a branch of the political party in Italy’s poorest regions to incorporate them. “We want to give a voice to all the good people of the south,” Salvini told the crowd, which is not exactly a Northern League mantra.
His anti-immigration stance is also sure to appeal to Italians who feel inundated with wave after wave of refugees landing on their shores. More than 170,000 irregular migrants and refugees arrived in 2014, and 2015 has seen a year-to-date increase of 64 percent. On his Facebook page, Salvini lauded a mayor of Cairate for denying citizenship to an Indian woman who had met all the requirements, but who did not speak Italian. “An Indian lady wanted Italian citizenship even though she did not speak Italian? No citizenship without learning the language first,” he said. “The left, journalists and do-gooders complain but I thank those who go beyond and do what needs to be done.”
Politics being what they are in Italy, favorite contenders sometimes disappear from center stage overnight. The real test of true endurance for Salvini will come during regional elections in May, when his Northern League party stands a chance to make inroads to Rome and give Renzi a run for his money. “I want to change Italy and get the economy back on track,” Salvini said at the rally. “This is currently being prevented by Brussels and crazy European policies.” If enough Italians agree, Salvini could indeed change Italy—for better or worse.