Last August the leader of the far-right League party provoked a government crisis in Italy by withdrawing his party’s support to the governing coalition. At the time, speculation abounded as to the motives behind Matteo Salvini’s motives and the future of the League in Italian politics.

Was Salvini’s move a political gaffe or a calculated action? Will the League remain a strong political force in Italy and a player on in the European theater?

European Interest had the chance to address these questions in a discussion with Alessio Scopelliti, a doctoral candidate in School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies of the University of Bristol, broadly specialising on radical right political parties and particularly the Italian League.

Alessio talked about the past of the League, the actual Italian political situation as well and the possible future for Salvini’s party.

European Interest: The ruling coalition formed by the League and M5S collapsed after Matteo Salvini triggered a political crisis. Was it a well-prepared move that will soon prove beneficial for his party or was it an unfortunate political gaffe?

Alessio Scopelliti: At first glance, it may seem strange that Matteo Salvini triggered a political crisis (the 8th of August) just after having received the confidence from the Senate about the second security decree (the 5th of August). Nevertheless, I think that this political move has certain political purposes. Indeed, I think that Matteo Salvini imagined two scenarios.

Firstly, having the certitude that 5SM and PD intended to have new elections, he would have the chance to challenge them and then win with the current Italian electoral law in September. He would be Prime Minister of a strong centre-right wing coalition and rewrite the budget law from scratch. As such, he would repudiate all the reforms made with the 5SM so far, confessing that these measures are not to the advantage of the country. In few words, he would be free to remove the “redditto di cittadinanza” and promote only the flat tax. Secondly, with no new elections, the League would be the main voice of the new opposition. This is still an advantage for Matteo Salvini, since he could be hands-free to criticize any type of economic manoeuvre proposed by the new government.

In this light, both scenarios would have been ideal for Matteo Salvini. On the one hand, go to the elections immediately and rule the new government until the natural end of the parliamentary term. On the other hand, going to the opposition and keep up the social tensions in the country in order to maintain its political popularity. And, so far, Matteo Salvini has demonstrated to be efficient in gaining electoral popularity both in ruling and in opposing the Italian government.

The League is the successor of a secessionist movement, the North League, which has used racist rhetoric against the South of Italy. However, during the last couple of years, we have seen the party successfully enter areas that it had previously blamed for all the country’s misfunctions. How do you explain this?   

I think that the political success of the League in Southern regions might be explained by the capability of the party to readapt its political narrative towards the current political context. The League, as you said, was born as a secessionist movement. So, it was founded on one of the classic cleavage structures theorised by Lipset and Rokkan in 1967: Centre vs. Periphery. However, the League is currently demonstrating a great adaptability to the new political context, which has changed since its foundation in the late 1970s (with Lega Lombarda).

Currently, I think that the growing electoral success of the League, even in the Southern regions, might be explained by the ability of the party to intercept the advent of new cleavage structures, which are affecting the current Western European party systems. In doing so, the League extended both its political offer and political narrative towards new topics such as national sovereignty against the EU, exit from the euro, fight against immigration combined with more security and chauvinist economic measures. This kind of narrative, because of both the recent economic and the migration crises, inevitably, is attracting a more general audience to the League, by keeping its consent from the North to the more left-wing areas in the Centre-South, as well as to the South and the islands.

I think that the growing electoral success of the League, even in the Southern regions, might be explained by the ability of the party to intercept the advent of new cleavage structures, which are affecting the current Western European party systems

On many external fronts, the League seems to be more aligned with the far-right front than serving as the heir of Italy’s neo-Fascist party Brothers of Italy. However, the recent European elections showed that both parties are gaining ground. How do you explain this? Is the core of their electoral base the same as the MSI’s electorate?    

First of all, I would avoid the terms of neo-Fascist or extremist for political parties such as the League and the Brothers of Italy. These parties do not oppose the principles of the Italian constitution, by opposing the fundamental values of liberal democracies (risking social and legal restraints). I instead would define these parties as “radical right-wing” political parties; since they respect the limits of liberal democracies but disapprove the current economic and political liberal systems.

Secondly, I think that the growing electoral success of these parties is twofold. The first factor is linked with my previous answer: these parties actively internalised the new transnational cleavage structure by claiming to defend the interests of the nation against the European institutions. Brothers of Italy as well is a political party, which has been founded around this new cleavage structure (at the contrary of the League, which is currently the oldest political party). The second factor is due to the lack of a moderate right-wing party in the current Italian party system. On the one hand, Berlusconi has never been able to find his political heir to take the control of Italy Forward. On the other hand, since the last Italian elections in 2018, the League overtook his allies, by becoming the first party in the current centre-right coalition.

To conclude, I am not an expert about the MSI’s electorate in order to say whether the core of their electoral base is the same. However, during the previous yellow-green government, Matteo Salvini (who was both the vice-president of the Council of Ministers and the Minister of Internal Affairs) experienced ambiguous episodes (for his institutional roles), which might explain the endorsement of the neo-fascist activists to the League. For instance, he did publish a book (Io sono Matteo Salvini) with the editor Altaforte, which is (self-defined) neo-fascist oriented; he polarised the public opinion about the Italian Republic Day (2 June 2018), by claiming that it is about a contest of Communist vs. Fascists, finally, in the League’s manifestations, as some activist stated neo-Fascist slogans, the leader of the League never stigmatised this kind of attitudes.

A year ago, Salvini unveiled his ambitions to create a strong pan-European movement that will be the main opposition to the pro-EU forces. But the European far-right has not had a successful performance in the European elections (for the exception of the League). For instance, the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament failed to attract the illiberal parties of Hungary and Poland. What is more, the scandal in Austria tarnished the reputation of the country’s far-right. Do you think that Salvini’s ambitions failed or is there any chance for a second attempt?

I think that the new political polarisation between pro-Europeans vs. Euroscepticists will be increasingly resounding in the future political campaigns both at the European and at the national levels. Moreover, I think that the League will have more than a second attempt, for many reasons: Matteo Salvini is one of the youngest leaders on the political scene in Italy and in Europe. The growing success of Eurosceptic political parties is due to the apathy and negligence of the pro-European parties, which are not accomplishing the original political European integration project. The European member states are probably approaching a second economic recession combined with the consequences of a NoDeal for the Brexit.

the new political communication strategy of the party is aimed to perceive the League as the extension of its leader

Does the League party have vulnerable positions? Is there an internal party struggle or is Salvini untouchable?

I think that the leadership of Matteo Salvini is currently untouchable both from inside and outside the League. Since its foundation, the Northern League has been built around the charisma of its political leaders. Indeed, its history might be even divided in two main waves: the first wave was characterised by the leadership of Umberto Bossi (from the 1980s to the 2013), and the second wave is reinforced by the leadership of Matteo Salvini (since 2013, when he won the leadership of the party).

Moreover, the new political communication strategy of the party is aimed to perceive the League as the extension of its leader. There is a strong personification of the League around Matteo Salvini. Hence, a fil rouge bonds the popularity of the League with the popularity of Matteo Salvini.

The League is described by many politicians and scholars as a populist party, while avoiding the use of the term “far-right”. However the League’ rhetoric is based on common far-right arguments – racist, nationalistic and backing a strong state and authoritarian methods. What do you think? Is the League populist or far-right? 

Linking to the third question, I still prefer to do not define the League as a far-right movement, but at the same time, I do not like also to define this party as populist. Considering the classic cleavage structure Left vs. Right, I think that the League might be located close to the right-wing pole of this political spectrum. Although, the populist parties do not locate only at the poles, but also at centre of the Left vs. Right scale. The mainstream Italian political parties can be defined as populist, such as Democratic Party (left-wing) and Forward Italy (right-wing). As well as in France (for instance) with La République En Marche (centre), Socialist Party (left-wing) and The Republicans (right-wing). The populist label can be hence associated with the moderate political parties.

I do define the League as an established radical right political party. It is radical right because this party opposes some of the fundamental liberal values such as the defence of the minorities’ rights; and it is right-wing because it proposes a discourse of law and order. Hence, the radical right combines elements of nativism, by claiming the right to have a homogenous population and authoritarianism, by believing in strong leaderships in a strong state. To conclude, it is an established political party, because it was founded on previous cleavage structures and it has a strong endorsement and activism at the territorial and regional levels.