Analysis. The desperate search for an alternative to Draghi sent the Northern League into a tailspin.

Inside Matteo Salvini’s descent from kingmaker to loose cannon

He was restless, on edge, a loose cannon. He proposed lists of names, announced summits, slept three hours a night, warned his people to be ready at three o’clock in the morning, and went around Rome in a spasmodic search for “lawyers and university professors” to propose for the presidency.

Matteo Salvini wanted to be the kingmaker for the new head of state, to pass his maturity test as leader of the center-right, but instead he burned through names like an incinerator. “We’ll decide today,” then tomorrow; “the solution is close,” but not too close.

First there was the list of names that came up on Tuesday with Meloni and Tajani, Pera-Moratti-Nordio, that was dead on arrival. Then the jumble of intermittent statements that he wants a “center-right” figure, claiming primacy in the choice; then opening up to names chosen together with the yellow-reds. He tested the ground with the name of Casellati, then realized that the numbers weren’t there; flirted with Conte on Frattini, reconsidered; then Frattini resurfaced Thursday night, with the predictable rebellion by Letta and Renzi.

One moment he was trying to keep the center-right together, and negotiating with Meloni, then he realized that there was also the government majority that was teetering: he phoned Draghi and Letta, made promises, then reconsidered. On Wednesday, he tested the waters with Professor Sabino Cassese, a proverbial “rabbit from the hat”; on Thursday it was the turn of Ambassador Giampiero Massolo, former head of the intelligence services, now president of Fincantieri: the news of the meeting with him was denied, as with Cassese, but in fact his name appeared on a list from the Lega leader: less politics and more civil society, as per the new order of things. Of course, Massolo met with many reservations, and not only from the PD, about the fact that he was the spy-in-chief. Exactly like Elisabetta Belloni. But there you have it: on Thursday night, this was the name brought to the table by Salvini together with Forza Italia and FdI.

Then there is the case of Casini: several sources confirmed that on Wednesday, Salvini had finalized the deal with Renzi on the former UdC leader, with the OK from Berlusconi. Thursday morning came a complete U-turn: “Casini is someone who was elected with the PD, a proposal from the left.” An astounding realization. It’s not clear whether the Lega reconsidered on its own or if it was Giorgia Meloni who came with the veto.

And so, Thursday saw the beginning of his tour of Rome in search of lawyers and teachers, somewhat reminiscent of the search for the premier in 2018, when, together with Di Maio, he went to knock on the door of none other than Giuseppe Conte. It also leads us to remember the famous intercom conversation in the Pilastro district of Bologna, in January 2020, a few days before the regional elections. And so the legendary phrase “Excuse me, are you a dealer?” has been transformed into memes on social media: “Excuse me, would you like to be President of the Republic?”

An extraordinary amount of confusion, which is partly related to the fear Salvini has of Giorgia Meloni. She is the only one who had put a serious candidate in contention (while the decision of the center-right was to leave their votes blank): her dear friend Guido Crosetto, who took twice as many votes as Fratelli d’Italia (114), including from the Lega. A blow to the self-confidence of the self-styled Captain, a vivid demonstration that if people want it, they can hurt him in the secret of the ballot box.

His fellow party members do not know what to do: “Salvini told us to be calm because everything is fine,” explained Giancarlo Giorgetti, after yet another Lega meeting, between resignation and irony. He was waiting on the sidelines, along with the powerful governors of the north, for “Matteo” to resign himself to Draghi after all. Difficult, unlikely, but possible. However, he did not give up. And the unrestrained and seemingly aimless bursts of activity have one thin logical thread running through them: finding a way to say no to Draghi.

Is it just a matter of the scant reassurances offered by the Prime Minister on the new government to come? Certainly. But there is more to it than that. To say yes to Draghi would have been a defeat for the Lega. Even within the party. It would be the acknowledgment of the failure of Operation Kingmaker. The failure of Salvini’s maturity test.

And after all, as the days passed, the flailing of the leader of the Lega ended up pushing things toward the most natural solutions: Mario Draghi or Sergio Mattarella. Inertia prevailed.

This article has been updated to reflect the election of Sergio Mattarella to a second presidency.

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