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Italy's Election, A Sign That Trump Could Pay For COVID-19

Italian populist party leader Matteo Salvini's disappointing results in regional elections is being blamed on his erratic handling of the health crisis in one of the worst-hit countries.

In Gragnano, Italy, on Sept. 11, 2020
In Gragnano, Italy, on Sept. 11, 2020
Alessio Perrone

In what some are calling the most consequential U.S. presidential election ever, the coronavirus crisis will no doubt play a role in who voters choose. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the handling of the pandemic is the top issue for 20% of the American electorate, behind only the economy.

Donald Trump's decidedly haphazard, often anti-science response to the health crisis has included his admitting that he intentionally downplayed its severity, scoffed at the use of masks, and regularly compared COVID-19 to the common flu. And as the U.S. tops 200,000 deaths, many are wondering whether he will pay a price at the polls for his coronavirus response.

Now, one possible indication may have arrived this past week from Italy: Right-wing Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, who has largely followed Trump's playbook on the COVID-19 response, suffered a resounding defeat in regional elections.

Make Italy great again? Salvini rose to prominence in March 2018, when a general election propelled him into a power-sharing government and a place atop the polls of Italy's most popular politician.

• The scruffy 47-year-old shares many traits with Trump, whom he called "one of his models': an emphasis on immigration and nationalism, a reluctance to distance himself from neo fascists and white supremacists, and aggressive, populist tirades against the media and the "establishment."

A quick fall: After a falling out with his coalition partner, Salvini continued to garner headlines opposing the government — including the response to the coronavirus that hit Italy particularly hard.

Salvini on the health crisis often sounds like Trump, flailing and full of U-turns and attempts to focus on other issues, like immigration. He protested against mandatory mask-wearing, then backtracked saying masks should be worn when necessary. He called for Italy's Prime Minister to be arrested for not imposing local lockdowns sooner, then claimed that "migrants are the only problem" and that the coronavirus was not an emergency.

Trump and Salvini in 2016 — Photo: Archives

Paying the price: Salvini's fumbling, freestyle approach to COVID-19 seems to have hurt him in a series of regional elections and a national referendum held this past Sunday and Monday.

• Salvini predicted that his party would win all six contended regions, but it took three — and only in coalition with two other major right-wing parties.

• In the contended Veneto region, incumbent governor Luca Zaia, a Lega dissident who openly defies Salvini's leadership, won 75% of the vote on the wings of his measured performance during coronavirus. Veneto saw one of Italy's first coronavirus hotspots, but Zaia heeded scientists and led the region to be among Europe's fastest to defeat the outbreak. Less than 17% of the votes went to Salvini's party.

• A growing number of right-wing Italians have ceased to see Salvini as a leader after the pandemic, preferring another far-right politician, Giorgia Meloni, who provided more leadership during the emergency.

• "Populists haven't been able to capture the need for protection during the COVID-19 emergency," Massimo Giannini, editor-in-chief of La Stampa, commented. "When the pandemic exploded, Salvini got flustered."

Not just Italy: There are indications that COVID-19 could have hit the stock of other populists with unconvincing performances during the pandemic, leaving open the question of whether it will also hurt Donald Trump:

• In the UK, only 30% of Brits approve of the coronavirus management of Boris Johnson, who initially said the UK wanted to achieve herd immunity, waiting to impose a lockdown and making the crisis worse, according to the latest YouGov poll.

• In Germany, the far-right populist party AfD, which embraced conspiracy theories about the virus, has plummeted, according to Die Welt.

• A Brazilian exception: although president Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly sneered at the advice of health professionals and led the country to one of the world's worst death tolls, his approval ratings recently set a new record high, according toFolha de São Paulo.

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