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WORLD | 29-08-2019 12:56

Curtains for Italy's first post-war populist government

The end of Italy's first post-war government experiment with far-right populists marks a stunning defeat for League leader Matteo Salvini, but his political career is far from over.

The end of Italy's first post-war government experiment with far-right populists marks a stunning defeat for League leader Matteo Salvini, but his political career is far from over.

Outgoing interior minister Salvini on Thursday railed against the "little government" that has replaced him, but he has massively lost his bet on snap elections.

"He committed a political error rather than one of timing," said Lorenzo Castellani, political science lecturer at Rome's Luiss University.

Salvini bet on the advantage of surprise when on August 8, in the middle of the summer holidays, he pulled the plug on his own coalition with the Five-Star Movement (M5S). But he underestimated the ability of Italy's parliamentary system and European allies to fight back.

He didn't see that "through contacts between European capitals and Italian President Sergio Mattarella a deal was reached to prevent him cashing in on votes", Castellani told AFP.

On the day he pulled the plug, opinion polls said his party would win 38 percent of votes in a national election, four more percentage points than were garnered in May's European parliamentary elections. 

Falling popularity

Since then, that has fallen to around 31 percent.

One of his closest aides, Gian Carlo Giorgetti, told Thursday's Corriere della Sera daily that "Salvini's fundamental mistake was to win the European elections. He became public enemy number one in Italy and beyond."

Salvini "frightened Europeans" when he refused to vote for Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president, despite having previously agreed to do so, said Castellani.

"He reasoned according to his party's eurosceptic impulses and his Italian electorate," said Castellani.

European powers "feared having to deal with another Boris Johnson (and) he didn't understand the real game of the forces that were against him," he said.

But Salvini understands a bit better now, and has already launched attacks on the new M5S-Democratic Party (PD) government as "formed according to the diktats of Paris, Berlin and Brussels."

Pending a return to power, Salvini, 46, who has been a politician since a teenager, said he "will not let go", and called for what he hopes will be a massive anti-government rally in Rome on October 19.

The Milan native became the head of the League in 2013 when the party was staring into the political abyss, turning the regional movement into a nationalist party that rapidly overtook right-wing ally Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia before abandoning it to form a government with M5S.

Experts predict that his share of voter intentions will potentially drop below 20 percent because, notes Castellani, "Italians are cynical and they don't like smart Alecs who turn out to be losers."

Some experts say that Salvini is merely a continuation of all Italian right-wing governments, once you scratch beneath the surface of his virulent anti-migrant and eurosceptic rants.

Italian philosopher Maurizio Cacciari warned Thursday in the left-leaning Stampa daily that "The PD-M5S alliance may benefit Salvini".

"You need new ideas to fight populism. Otherwise you will open the doors wide and we'll have sovereignists in power for one or two generations," Cacciari wrote.

by by Françoise Kadri, AFP

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