Few outside his native Italy had heard of Matteo Salvini before he emerged in 2018 as the new global star of far-right populism. Catapulted by the election success of his League party, the scruffy and sardonic northerner had grown into Italy's most talked-about and incendiary politician, solidifying power in his role as interior minister in a government led by caretaker Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Salvini's favorite topic was immigration, and he made worldwide headlines by ordering authorities to block migrant rescue vessels from docking on Italian shores. It was a radical new policy that put the lives of refugees at risk. His popularity skyrocketed.
But last week, a year after his coalition's patchwork majority disintegrated and Salvini was forced into the opposition, he was the one suddenly exposed to the elements. As reported by the daily La Stampa, a raucous mix of insults and chants in his favor ("Matteo! Matteo!") accompanied the Italian Parliament's vote to strip Salvini's parliamentary immunity. That, in turn, enabled a Palermo prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against him for the very policies that had once made him so beloved by his anti-immigration supporters.
The charges: "kidnapping," on the grounds that as interior minister he'd forced vulnerable refugees to remain stranded at sea in violation of existing laws requiring authorities to save people at risk.
What happens when democratically elected leaders adopt undemocratic policies, and even threaten lives?
It is not yet sure whether Salvini will, in fact, be taken to court for his actions — the judiciary will decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial. For now, he remains a member of Parliament and head of what is still Italy's most popular party.
But the case highlights a growing tension in how Western democracies deal with populists challenging what had seemed basic standards of decency. What happens when democratically elected leaders adopt undemocratic policies, and even threaten lives?
Another theater for this debate is in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has carried out policies during the COVID-19 crisis that defy all scientific logic, even as the death count continues to rise. To date, some 90,000 have died there, more than in any other country outside the United States.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — Photo: Lucio Tavora/Xinhua/ZUMA
In response, Brazilian labor unions representing more than 1 million health professionals recently filed accusations against Bolsonaro for Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide at the International Criminal Court in The Hague "for refusing to protect Brazilian health and the Brazilian population," according to daily Folha de S. Paulo.
Populists rose to power across the world promising disregard for existing rules, international agreements and institutions – "the system" or "the establishment." At the time, many interpreted their rise as a sign that liberal democracies were ailing. Now, after they acted to defy those rules, taking regular whacks at age-old boundaries and testing democracies around the world, these trials could be a sign that our democracies are fighting back.
But it could also be a sign that the crisis is about to go deeper. Suing democratically elected leaders risks testing the resiliency of the very institutions pro-democracy supporters aim to protect. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long leveraged attacks against him in the courts to gain popularity at the polls, and thus weakening the power of the judiciary.
Back in Italy, another populist who has faced magistrates ever since he entered politics is Silvio Berlusconi, who has managed to convince millions of Italians that he was being attacked unfairly by a corrupt system. A force in Italian politics for two decades, his say-anything approach largely paved the way for the rise of Salvini.
But it could also be a sign that the crisis is about to go deeper.
But the country's history always points back to the singular example of someone who was democratically elected but cared little for democracy. Benito Mussolini used his standing as a member of Parliament to launch a coup d'etat, going on to murder political opponents, call off elections, invade weaker countries and eventually forge an alliance with Adolf Hitler — who himself first rose to leadership through the polls.
Leave it to the fascists to remind us that democracy is about much more than just winning elections.