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Why Matteo Salvini Risks Winding Up Like Marine Le Pen

The far-right League party in Italy, rising in popularity, now faces the prospect of being marginalized by its extremist rhetoric after this summer's gamble by its populist leader backfired.

Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini at a right-wing congress in Koblenz
Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini at a right-wing congress in Koblenz
Flavia Perina*

Fourteen months into governing, the alliance between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League party collapsed on August 20, when the League's leader Matteo Salvini pulled out of the coalition, hoping to capitalize on his rising popularity in a snap election. Instead, the Five Star Movement joined forces with the center-left Democratic party, avoiding elections and sidelining the League in a surprise move that has since been dubbed the August Blitz.


ROME — Who knows if the Italian right has noticed the "French risk" brewing just around the corner: the possibility that its many voters, its hegemony among the working class and much-applauded and influential leadership could all end up being neutralized, cordoned off and isolated exactly like Marine Le Pen in France. Yes, for nearly 20 years now, the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been the consensus candidate on the right, but has never succeeded in leading her party to power because she was frozen out of any possible alliance.

It's a plausible scenario, and maybe even likely. We've already seen it in action during the days of crisis, when a large operation (from European circles, but not only) was undertaken to encourage the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party to open a dialogue, join forces and replace the League-led government.

At this rate, the political arrangement proposed during the "August Blitz," though in many ways an emergency solution, could harden into a bonafide policy of exclusion of any party that alludes to "sovereignism​," a kind of latter-day nationalism.

It wouldn't be a new phenomenon for our country, which under the First Republic (1948-1992) gave us the "Constitutional Arc" model of coalition, uniting Socialist, Communist, Christian Democrat, Liberal and Republican parties — that "no-fly zone" decreed around the old post-fascist MSI party (Italian Social Movement) to prevent them from participating in power.

But even the League, in its secessionist days during the 1990s and early 2000s when it was known as the Northern League, had its "off-limits' moments, remaining cut off from any possible alliance for long stretches of time, even in the municipalities where its voters abounded.

It's clear everywhere that winning and filling town squares is useless.

That's also why it's so surprising to see the new Right, seemingly unaware, continue to dance on the edge of extremism with declarations of war against everyone and everything, risking to wind up isolated and without influence (if not turned into outright pariahs).

Elsewhere, those touting national sovereignty are more cautious. Even Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the icon of new nationalism and chief critic of European Union institutions, has preferred to combat the system he criticizes from within, casting his decisive vote in favor of Ursula von der Leyen as the next President of the European Commission.

Likewise, the ultras of Saxony's Alternative for Germany (AfD), after having nearly doubled their share of the vote, knocked insistently at the door of better-performing parties (unsuccessfully) seeking a regional coalition to lift it out of irrelevance and disperse the sulfurous aura that surrounds it.

It's clear everywhere that winning, being first, and filling town squares is useless if your political passport is of limited jurisdiction — relegating you to the realm of opposition and perennial protest, chaining you to the role of champion of societal discontent. So-called "de-demonization" is a primary goal for everyone: Le Pen has tried incessantly over the past decade, going so far as ousting her father, changing the party's name, and putting a 20-something at the top of the party list in the latest European elections in her quest to succeed.

So it's curious that in Italy we're going in the opposite direction, without taking into account the lessons of experience: ambiguity on certain foundational principles of democracy, verbal arrogance, word plays with xenophobic or sexist undertones might reap votes and fill rallies, but they also inspire considerable alarm and can lead to sudden defensive reflexes, and reactions strong enough to bring together sworn enemies like the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party — with the blessing of the rest of the world.

On talk shows, we can call it a conspiracy, a maneuver against the people, the work of a faceless and powerful cabal, but we should be more lucid in our reasoning: The danger is very real that one can conquer voters by riding on extremism, only to end up politically and permanently marginalized.

*Flavia Perina, former editor of the Secolo d'Italia daily, served as a member of Italy's lower chamber of Parliament from 2006 to 2013, representing center-right parties.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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