Salvini Blew It, But Don't Count Him Out Just Yet
It would be a mistake to assume that Italy has seen the last of the controversial 'Captain,' who will have a different kind of influence at the helm of the opposition.
MILAN — It's still unclear who will emerge as the winner of Italy's latest political crisis. But we do know for sure who lost: Matteo Salvini — the interior minister, deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party — who fell in just a few days from omnipotence to irrelevance, from the altar to dust, from the stars to the stables, from everything to nothing.
Suddenly, the Capitano (Captain) is no longer leading the headlines.
It's a situation that brings to mind Genesis 3:19 (memento qui pulvis es et pulverem reverteris — for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return) or Ecclesiastes 1:2 (vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas — Vanity of vanities! All is vanity). Not that today's politicians are well acquainted anymore with Latin, with the exception perhaps of an old school leader like President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella.
Perhaps it was hubris, rather than vanity, that precipitated the Captain's fall in a summer where everything seemed possible until suddenly everything slipped away from his hands. A summer during which the Papeete, a beach club in the seaside resort town of Milano Marittima, became a branch of the Viminale, the building that hosts Italy's Interior Ministry, or, even, in some ways, a projection of the Palazzo Venezia, where Benito Mussolini had his office.
A summer spent as a strong man, dictating decrees from the beach (in flip-flops, mind you), mistreating journalists on Facebook live, being omnipresent in the media and omnipotent on social networks. He even talked about wanting "full powers' as he moved to break up his government and called for snap elections. He bullied his Five Star Movement (M5S) ally Luigi Di Maio, while banning boats filled with desperate migrants from entering Italy's ports.
He didn't take it well.
Then another politician played a magic trick and now the M5S is discussing a possible government coalition with the center-left Democratic Party (PD). Even Salvini admitted he made a mistake — "if one considers it based on the logic of the old politics." It was a mistake, no matter how you cut it.
Salvini didn't take his sudden reversal of fortune well. First he disappeared, then he gave his version of the downfall, blaming the powers that be, Europe, the Merkel-Macron duo. "This government was born in Brussels to get rid of that pain in the neck Salvini," he said during one of his countless live appearances on social media.
Naturally, from his perspective, the plot had been long in the making, even if it is not clear why Salvini helped them out by defying Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Yeah, Conte. Not at all the people's lawyer, as Salvini used to refer to him. He is now "the lawyer of the powers-that-be."
The League might also need to reflect on its reckless foreign policy, and pay greater attention to its choice of friends and intermediaries. Perhaps in the future they'll be better off keeping their distance from Putin (so as not to prompt another investigation), and Brazil's right-wing new President Jair Bolsonaro, who isn't making a good impression when it comes to the Amazon, and Boris Johnson, acting like Charles I in the UK, and Donald Trump, of course.
The man has endless energy.
So what now? For starters, we're back to a period of election campaigning, which never really ended, truth be told. The Captain is back to touring various League festivals. Indeed, the man has endless energy. He has already called for "a great day of Italian pride" on Oct. 19, telling supporters to march in Rome. And the Beast, as his social networks propaganda team is known, already has its new targets: They will continue hammering away with their narrative of the people vs the elite, of Italy vs Europe, of ballot boxes vs institutional games.
The prospects are unclear, though. And above all they don't depend just on Salvini and his ability to appeal to the guts of voters. The situation also depends on what the new coalition will be able to do and, more importantly, how long it will last, because if it doesn't last too long, being in the opposition can actually be beneficial.
For now, opinion polls are showing a decline for the League for the first time in a long time. Within the party, many had become accustomed to cushy and prestigious government positions. In order to keep the party together — to build again the myth of the infallible leader after the first (tactical) defeat — the crossing of the desert cannot last too long.
Either way, it's a mistake to assume that Salvini is politically dead. Everything is premature right now. The Governing Salvini is nothing compared to a Fighting Salvini, who will be tougher and more fearless than ever.