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.
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.