To his many critics, Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, is a racist opportunist who is about to take Italy down a dangerously confrontational and xenophobic path. To his supporters, in the League’s northern heartlands, he is a “warrior” whose high-profile installment as minister of the interior in western Europe’s first populist government is a symbol of the country’s much-needed pivot to the right.
That is certainly the view in Pontida, a relatively prosperous village in the northern Lombardy region’s Alpine foothills, where thousands of League supporters converge once a year for a rowdy celebration in the party’s honor.
“Salvini is a great revolutionary,” said Giuseppe Paruta, a pensioner who has supported the party since its early days as a northern Italy secessionist movement. “He’s one of us. When he comes to the festival each year, he makes a speech, eats with us, drinks with us. Sometimes he comes across as aggressive, but he’s not a bad person.”
Paruta is jokingly known around town as Pontida’s Donald Trump — he sports a hairstyle uncannily similar to that of the US president.
“I like him too, but Salvini is better,” he said.
Much like Trump, Salvini is esteemed by Paruta and his friends at the town’s Bar8 as the strongman needed to restore law and order in a country they claim is buckling under the weight of a refugee crisis.
Salvini supporters admitted they have relatively little to complain about: Their pensions are good and they own their homes.
However, they said that they resent having had to work so hard for their achievements when they see “illegal immigrants wandering around, doing nothing and not paying taxes like we had to.”
They are counting on Salvini to put a stop to all of that.
After weeks of tortured negotiations, 45-year-old Salvini was handed power over the Italian Ministry of the Interior on Friday last week, when the League was sworn into government in a coalition with its former rival, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
Salvini, born in Milan to a middle-class family, was swift to remind voters that his top priority would be to deal with thousands of illegal immigrants.
“Open doors for good people and a one-way ticket for those who come to create commotion,” Salvini said.
The government was formed despite the apparent collapse of talks when Italian President Sergio Mattarella rejected the coalition’s nomination of controversial Paolo Savona as finance minister.
The 81-year-old economist, a noted critic of the EU, had previously called the euro a “German cage” and his appointment was judged to be beyond the pale by Mattarella.
As markets went into turmoil, insults were traded with the EU and calls were made by Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio for Mattarella to be impeached.
However, faced with the prospect of fresh elections next month, Salvini and Di Maio scrambled to put together an alternative Cabinet that will now see Savona challenge the EU in the guise of European affairs minister.
Meanwhile, Giovanni Tria, an economics professor with a more moderate tone toward Europe, was named minister of finance.
Salvini and Di Maio agreed that neither should become prime minister of the new coalition, instead appointing Giuseppe Conte, a relatively unknown law professor with no political experience, to steer a government program that includes generous tax cuts, a universal basic income and a raft of policies against illegal immigrants, Roma people and Muslims.
However, they are to share the role of deputy prime minister, with Di Maio, a 31-year-old former waiter, also serving as minister of labor.
The new coalition is expected to receive a vote of confidence this week.
However, while League supporters are happy their hero has made it into government, they have reservations about the union with Five Star.
“The League is totally different from M5S,” said Giulio Sapelli, an economics professor who taught Salvini at the University of Milan. “You never know what they [M5S] are thinking or going to do. For example, this calling for Mattarella to be impeached was crazy.”
Sapelli, a euroskeptic who was among those proposed as a potential prime minister for the coalition, also pointed to the League’s history in government and experience in administering two of Italy’s richest regions — Lombardy and Veneto.
Meanwhile, haphazard management has seen Five Star lose support in the two biggest cities it runs, Rome and Turin.
“It’s very hard to know how long [this government] will last,” Sapelli said. “The League is the only classic ‘rank and file’ party left; M5S is a movement with a weird leadership.”
Marco Ghezzi, the League’s candidate for mayor in upcoming local elections in Calolziocorte, a town close to Pontida, would have preferred the party to have stuck with its center-right coalition partners: former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the smaller far-right Brothers of Italy.
The group won the biggest share of the vote in the March 4 elections, but fell 3 percent shy of the majority required to govern.
Berlusconi stepped aside to allow the League to forge a deal with Five Star, which sees the 81-year-old media magnate as a symbol of the corruption it has long railed against, although the alliance still campaigns at regional and local level.
“The problem with M5S is that they don’t have a ‘structured party.’ Most of it is based online,” Ghezzi said.
Ghezzi is expected to win Sunday’s vote in Calolziocorte by a landslide, ousting a center-left Democratic Party leadership, which in itself is an anomaly in a region dominated by the League.
At a mayoral platform event on Thursday last week, the prime concern of the town’s residents was security. Its population of 15,000 includes about 1,500 foreigners.
Most are integrated, but in the past few years the area has seen an uptick in the arrival of illegal immigrants, Ghezzi said.
“They hang around the station at night, sleep in abandoned houses and by the river,” he said. “It’s a scandal for the people here, who mostly live in mountain villages and cherish their values and tradition.”
Echoing Salvini, Ghezzi said that refugees should be vetted before they arrive.
Salvini is notoriously quick to speak out when crimes are committed by foreigners, while remaining silent over incidents involving white-skinned Italians.
He expressed horror on Facebook at the alleged gang rape of an Italian woman by Bengali men in Rome, but failed to mention the arrests of five Italian hotel workers a few days earlier over the alleged rape of a British woman in the holiday town of Sorrento.
Ghezzi claims the reactions are different, because the proportion of crimes committed by immigrants outweighs that by Italians.
Italy’s crime rate has fallen 8.3 percent over the past decade, interior ministry figures showed, despite the number of foreigners.
“In Italy, public debate is often not based on reality, but on the perception of reality,” said Matteo Pucciarelli, a journalist at newspaper La Repubblica and author of Anatomy of a Populist: The True Story of Matteo Salvini.
“Crime has gone down, but the feeling of insecurity has risen. Truth doesn’t count, but what you say does, and in this respect Salvini is incredible. We don’t live in the Wild West, but he gives the impression that we do,” he said.
Pucciarelli believes that Salvini, who he described as a “media animal,” would continue to project false realities while giving the impression that all is in order.
“For example, deporting thousands of immigrants is impossible, but all the same he’ll succeed in making it look as if he is a minister ruling with an iron fist,” Pucciarelli said.
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