Matteo Salvini triumphs in European elections, taking nearly 35 per cent of Italian vote

Nick Squires
Matteo Salvini expresses his gratitude to voters - 'First party in Italy, thank you' the sign reads - Matteo Salvini social media

As the full scale of his win in the European elections became apparent, a beaming Matteo Salvini sent out a photograph to his millions of supporters in Italy.

Standing in his office, he held a handwritten placard that read “First party in Italy – thank you”, a reference to the thumping win scored by the League, the hard-Right party he leads.

But it was the objects arrayed behind him on a bookshelf that sent an equally important, if less obvious message, not just to voters in Italy but to the rest of the world.

There was a baseball cap with the slogan Make America Great Again, a photograph of Vladimir Putin and behind it a book about the Russian president that bore his portrait.

On the shelf below was a gold-framed icon of Christ, his head surrounded by a halo.

The mise-en-scene put Mr Salvini squarely at the nexus of a populist movement that draws inspiration from Donald Trump, lauds Putin’s strong man style of governance and obsesses over threats to Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots.

The pugnacious Italian interior minister is the poster boy for a nationalist, populist movement that is now vowing to radically change the EU from within and to take on the mainstream parties that have dominated Brussels for decades.

Mr Salvini holds a crucifix as he talks to the press after the release of the election results Credit: Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

The League triumphed in the elections, winning 34 per cent of the vote in Italy.

The results confirm Mr Salvini’s status as one of the most influential politicians in Europe, as he seeks to forge a populist, nationalist bloc in the European Parliament.

“Salvini has really established a connection with ordinary Italians who are worried about issues like unemployment and migration,” said Lucia Annunziata, a political commentator and editorial director of the Italian edition of Huffington Post. “The Italian press, and other political parties, have been in denial about how well the League would do.”

By taking one-third of the Italian vote, the League is poised to become one of the biggest parties in the European parliament.

Mr Salvini now hopes to ally with like-minded movements, including Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Hungary’s Fidesz, led by Viktor Orban, as well as populists in Denmark, Spain, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

The results from across the continent send a strong signal that "the European people are asking for a different Europe,” Mr Salvini said.

He forecast that populist and nationalist parties will control at least 150 seats in the new 751-seat European Parliament.

"Not only is the League the first party in Italy, but also Marine Le Pen is the first party in France, Nigel Farage is the first party in the UK. Therefore, Italy, France, the UK - it is the sign of a Europe that is changing." 

He told supporters in Milan that the results demonstrated that "a new Europe has been born. And I say that to those who have sunk the European dream, transforming it into a nightmare, that I am proud that the League participated in this new rebirth of a sunken Europe."

At one point Mr Salvini held up a crucifix and kissed it, glancing upwards and saying: "I thank whoever is up there.”

He was criticised by the Vatican and the Catholic establishment for brandishing a rosary and citing the names of various saints while up on stage in a big rally in Milan a week before the election.

The League stormed to victory even in Riace, a town in the far south which has been held up as an example of how to integrate migrants, as well as in Capalbio on the coast north of Rome, traditionally seen as a holiday retreat for intellectuals and the Left.

The Five Star Movement, the other half of the ruling coalition, were struggling to come to terms with a deeply disappointing result, taking just 17% of the vote – just under half that of the League.

They came in as the third biggest party, beaten to second place by the pro-EU Democratic Party, Italy’s centre-Left force, which won 22%. "We’re back," said Nicola Zingaretti, the party’s leader.

The League’s strong performance is likely to lead to jostling for greater power within the coalition and confirms Mr Salvini, who is interior minister and deputy prime minister, as by far the most powerful politician in Italy.

The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is a largely powerless figurehead with the unenviable task of mediating between the fractious coalition partners, while Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Five Star, has seen his authority further diminished by the results.

Five Star performed particularly poorly in the north of Italy, relegating them to a party with its support base largely in the south.

The results will strengthen Mr Salvini’s hand in his negotiations with Five Star over the many policies on which they have clashed in recent months, from migrants and tax cuts to big infrastructure projects and greater autonomy for regions in the north, the heartland of the League.

For now, he has pledged to stick with Five Star in the coalition, rather than break up the government and press for fresh elections.

 

The Five Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, performed dismally, winning just 17% of the vote  Credit: Reuters/Ciro De Luca

“For the time being, it’s convenient for Salvini to stay in the coalition because the Five Star Movement brings a lot of votes in parliament in Rome,” said Ms Annunziata, the political commentator.

The election results will also embolden Mr Salvini in his fight with Brussels over EU spending limits, as the government plans to splurge billions on tax reform and a costly rail link beneath the Alps between Turin and Lyon.

At a press conference on Monday, he appeared in an open-necked shirt, with his sleeves rolled up, saying that he had had worked “18-hour days” for the last few months but was looking forward to a new phase in which the League will get its way more than in the past.

The election outcome gave the government a mandate to change the EU’s budget rules, he said.

“I think that the Italian people have given a mandate to me and to the government to discuss revising these old, obsolete parameters," he said.

Bringing in a two-tier flat tax was “a moral duty”. The League’s strong showing compares to the 17.4% it won at last year’s general election and 6.2% at the last European ballot in 2014. 

Mr Salvini has transformed it from a weak, marginal party that once campaigned for secession for northern Italy from the rest of the country, into a formidable national force.