After years on the fringes of Italian politics, the populist leader of the Lega has stoked anti-immigrant panic and barged into power.
By Alexander Stille
When Matteo Salvini – Italy’s interior minister and the country’s most popular politician – climbed up on the stage last month at the annual meeting of his party, the Lega, he looked out on a sea of green. Many of the party members were wearing green T-shirts, and some had even dyed their hair green. Green is the colour of the flag of Padania, the independent nation, named after the Po Valley, that Salvini’s separatist party (formerly known as the Northern League) has long proposed creating to secede from the Italian state.
This year, however, the message had changed. A new slogan, “Italians first!”, had replaced the old secessionist battle cries. Blue flags – the Italian national colour – mixed with the green, and Salvini stood at a blue-and-white podium in front of a blue backdrop. The enemy was no longer Rome, but Brussels, international banks and multinational corporations. This was Salvini’s doing: in four years as its leader, he has turned a movement of regional separatism into its seeming opposite, a nationalist party.