With his everyman appeal and social media savvy, Matteo Salvini’s popularity has soared since he became a key figure in Italy’s unsteady coalition government 14 months ago. But the pugnacious leader of the rightwing League party now faces an array of critics who claim he has over-reached.
Since pulling the plug on the government three weeks ago, his plan to capitalise on his lead in the polls by forcing fresh elections has backfired after other parties unexpectedly united to block his power grab.
If the Democratic party and the Five Star cement their new partnership under prime minister Giuseppe Conte — which could yet fall apart — Mr Salvini would be relegated to the sidelines.
He claims to have no regrets. “It’s better that you win with your political scheming today and we win the hearts and minds of Italians tomorrow,” he said in a Facebook video on Thursday.
But his opponents say he is a victim of his own hubris. “There is no doubt that he was drunk on power,” former prime minister Matteo Renzi of the centre-left PD told the Financial Times. “Until a month ago [he] seemed invincible but now he is in a corner.”
The League insists that Mr Salvini did not make a mistake and that this manoeuvring will pay off in the end, when the new coalition falls apart. They “have nothing in common, there is no trust”, said League MP Edoardo Ziello. “The other parties will disappear after a year or two but sooner or later the Italian people will vote.”
A poll on Thursday found that 32 per cent of Italians intended to vote for the League. Mr Salvini is still lauded in some quarters as the man who made the League a contender in mainstream Italian politics, garnering 34 per cent of the vote in European elections in May. “Until August he never put a foot wrong,” says Giovanni Orsina, professor of politics at the University of Luiss, Rome.
His first mistake was timing. He should have called for elections after the European polls, analysts say. Instead, by waiting, he set the country on course for autumn elections during budget season for the first time in 100 years.
Planning for this year’s budget will be particularly challenging if Italy is to find €23bn in spending cuts in time to avoid an automatic VAT rise mandated by EU budget rules. The tight timeline meant that president Sergio Mattarella was loath to call a vote.
Mr Salvini also underestimated his opponents’ ability to put differences aside to remain in parliament. The leader of the opposition, Nicola Zingaretti, had frequently insisted that if the government collapsed he would go to elections, and Mr Salvini took him at his word — a further mistake.
The recent reappearance of former centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi, who proposed the alliance with the Five Star, was a further blow.
“He made a mistake, a personal mistake, a political mistake,” Mr Renzi said. “He thought that we would not react but it was our duty to react and I am glad I spoke out.”
The League has attempted to spin its own narrative. The party had been a victim of its own success in the European elections, according to senior League official Giancarlo Giorgetti, a result that “made us enemy number one” for the European establishment.
Pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco, author of The Salvini Phenomenon, dismissed the idea that Mr Salvini’s gambit is a long-term strategy. “Plan A was a swift incisive military offensive, a lightning offensive, leading to a vote, but lightning offensives are often not completed in lightning time,” he said.
Despite the setback, a return to opposition may suit Mr Salvini’s combative political style. “He is more a man of the piazza than a man of the palazzo,” Mr Orsina said.
Regional elections in the PD strongholds of Umbria and Emilia Romagna before the end of the year will be a crucial test for Mr Salvini’s appeal. He is preparing a mass demonstration in Rome to kick of the campaign, and his sophisticated social media operation has not slowed down.
“Do you think I am afraid of a few months in opposition?” he asked in the Facebook video. “You haven’t got rid of me with your political games. You don’t know me, I don’t give in.”