Just a year ago, Salvini was still “the other Matteo,” the cunning and ruthless leader who had managed to resurrect a Lega which had one foot in the grave and grow it to the level of a medium-sized party, but who was, in any case, relegated to a potent but secondary role.
Receiving a higher percentage of the vote than Forza Italia changed everything: a difference of just 3.5 percent amounted to priceless capital in terms of political weight.
Since then, Matteo Salvini has become ubiquitous: the most cited, the most watched, the most discussed and gossiped about, the most hated and the most loved.
For decades, all this was true about Silvio Berlusconi, and, for just a few fleeting years, about Matteo Renzi: the two leaders who gradually turned Italian politics into a permanent referendum on themselves, and divided the country along the criteria of personal fandom rather than those proper to politics.
Salvini was the man of 2018. In the coming year, however, we will see whether his fate will be like that of the Knight of Arcore, who was able to capitalize on the obsession around his person to dominate politics for a couple of decades, or like that of the young PD leader from Rignano, who was brought down in short order by the same type of mass obsession and division of the country into his fans and his haters.
Of course, this depends on one’s communication skills and one’s ability to directly sense the mood of the voting public, but it is also a matter of political choices. These might seem to be outweighed by the war between likes and dislikes, but they will carry much more weight in the end than his Nutella selfies or his siestas with ex-girlfriends on Facebook.
In 2019, there will be quite a few dilemmas that will test Salvini’s talent as a politician and not just a propagandist.
The alliance with M5S—a giant with feet of clay—has proven very profitable for him so far, thanks to the sheer inconsistency of the 5 Stars. However, it is starting to cost him the solid support of his historical base from the north and northeast of the country, replaced with quintessentially volatile support from the south.
However, breaking the government alliance would mean trading in Di Maio’s appeasing attitude for Forza Italia’s much more cunning and experienced approach, either through horse-trading that would particularly strengthen Berlusconi’s party, or through early elections, which both Mattarella and the ever-looming markets would not be happy about.
Choose the appropriate time and manner to get out of the government alliance would take near-miraculous timing and balancing of the different forces. Making a mistake here would plunge Salvini into the same vortex of negative attention that caused Renzi to squander an enormous wealth of support and confident expectations in record time.
The economy is the second obstacle the Lega leader will have to face, an even more perilous one than the first.
The new government’s attempt at a European fight essentially resulted in an Italian rout. The only thing Salvini and Di Maio could salvage from the debacle was the ability to leverage their flagship policies as blunt instruments of propaganda, but the Lega leader is probably well aware that there’s very little mileage left there.
As a result of conceding basically everything, the yellow-green government has had to change their proposed “expansive” budget into something that is quite the opposite, and stuff in some clauses that recall a slowly-tightening noose. Their bluff might still hold up until the European elections, as it isn’t likely to be called by that point—but that’s as far as it will go.
The next budget would put any government through the wringer. To properly manage such a difficult moment, in a global context in which powerful storms loom just ahead, would be hard for anyone—but it will be much harder to succeed in this task while in tandem with the M5S, which will, of course, claim equal rights to spend on their own priorities at every point.
Unlike the 5 Stars, the Lega has some competent people to field in this critical moment, but they are unlikely to gain the assent of their government allies.
In 2018, Salvini proved himself to be a champion when it comes to propaganda, even though he did get a helping hand from his involuntarily complicit critics. In 2019, that won’t be enough.
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