(Bloomberg) -- He’s the 46-year-old Italian college dropout who cracks crude jokes, gorges himself on pasta and Parma ham and posts pictures of himself shopping for underwear.
Cultivating an image of just another average guy has served Matteo Salvini well, turning the leader of what used to be a fringe nationalist party into Italy’s most prominent politician, the chief opponent of immigrants and Brussels interference. Mobbed wherever he goes, few dispute he will one day become the country’s prime minister.
That, though, is for public consumption and there’s another side to the man known only to his inner circle, the lieutenants for whom he is simply known as “The Captain” and who in private describe a man who’s dead serious, a sophisticated thinker with dogged ambition.
And it’s that side of Salvini that ultimately poses the biggest threat to the European order should he complete his rise to the top of Italian politics.
His latest target is Emilia-Romagna, a center-left stronghold that the leader of the League plans to flip in Sunday’s local election. The contest in the prosperous region is his best chance to deal the government a body blow. Polls show Salvini’s League and the Democratic Party tied but with the recent turmoil in government, a win for Salvini would be especially sweet.
Away from the backroom strategizing, it was the well-rehearsed public persona that was on full display last week in Maranello, the home of Ferrari but more crucially a key town in business-rich Emilia-Romagna.
Salvini was in his element. As he made his way along barriers in front of the stage on the main square, people reached out to stroke him. One woman jumped up and down with excitement as she patted his left cheek repeatedly.
It was just one of up to a dozen pit-stops a day as he tirelessly presses the flesh up and down the country in bars, markets, farms and shopping centers. Sporting a Ferrari-red windbreaker after his speech in Maranello, Salvini cheerfully greeted a supporter waiting to meet him on stage. There is always a kiss or a handshake. Then he takes the fan’s mobile phone and snaps a selfie with them. It takes less than 10 seconds. He repeats the drill until the queue dries up, in this case for an hour and 20 minutes.
“Salvini exploits the territory, television and social media to put himself constantly in the public eye,” said Giovanni Orsina, head of the school of government at Rome’s LUISS university. “He’s projecting a reassuring image that says ‘I am one of you, I like you, I’m with you.’”
There are cracks in the happy-go-lucky facade, the flash of the serious Salvini who is gunning for power, not just popularity. When a man tightly grabs his jacket, Salvini whips round to reprimand and his smile vanishes, albeit briefly.
The League leader still faces the challenge of how to engineer the collapse of a government from the outside especially when those inside are determined to dig further in—if only to keep him out.
Even his closest aides acknowledge that Salvini messed up when he staged a summer coup to topple the government where he was deputy premier and interior minister. He thought that by pulling out it would automatically precipitate a snap election he was bound to win with his enviable polling.
Instead, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement he was in coalition with outfoxed him by pairing up with the Democrats to stay in power. But now, Five Star having just lost its leader and primed for a beating at the ballot box, he is determined not to make another political miscalculation.
QuicktakeHow Italy’s Anyone-But-Salvini Government Is Doing
Key to the next chapter of the Salvini story is the man’s chameleon-like qualities.
He started out as a Communist, but at the age of 17 he joined the Northern League, a right-wing group that wanted the secession of the rich north. He didn’t complete his university degree, but studied classics in one of the best high schools in Milan. He identifies most strongly with the common working man, but his background is distinctly middle class.
The two sides of the man also reflect the two sides of Italian culture. Salvini often portrays himself as a religious family man, the good Catholic sporting a crucifix even at the beach. Meanwhile, his private life as a divorcee is the subject of Italian tabloid fodder. One of his ex-girlfriends, a talk show host, broke up with him on Instagram with a picture of them in bed together.
What’s certain is that Salvini has killer political instincts. He successfully brought the party into the mainstream and re-branded it as just “The League” to broaden its appeal beyond a handful of rich regions in the north. He now can claim to represent the center right, the ground Silvio Berlusconi occupied for decades during many stints as premier.
Salvini’s aggressively anti-immigration stance might have drawn criticism outside of Italy, but inside the country it’s gained kudos. When Richard Gere chided him as interior minister for not helping migrants stranded at sea, he delighted in telling the American actor that he was welcome to take the refugees back to Hollywood and look after them in his villas.
On the campaign trail, he used an obscenity to say “we’ve had our fill of drug-trafficking, raping migrants.”
The governing coalition parties in Rome are urging the Senate to allow the prosecution of Salvini for kidnapping by denying port access to migrants in Sicily in the summer when he was interior minister. Salvini says he was applying government policy.
There’s little sign that the case is affecting his popularity. Luciana Brusiani, 72, a retired cook at the Maranello rally, calls herself a former communist and now backs Salvini.
“The left is all talk now, no results,” she said. “Salvini has people in his heart, like the communists of many years ago. We’ve got to give priority to Italians. We’ve got to help poor Italians first. When my dad needed public housing, it was given to immigrants instead.”
The deluge of posts and videos he feeds to his 4 million Facebook followers is vital to Salvini’s man-of-the-people narrative.
“I open Salvini’s updates whenever I can,” said Marina Quartieri, 57, a telecommunications employee who got a pat from him in the front row of the Maranello crowd. “He’s always on the move, he meets ordinary people all the time. We need him, not the politicians who go around in limousines.”
In the week where attention was on Iran’s face off with the U.S., it was a video Salvini posted of himself buying boxer shorts that was the topic of conversation. “Let’s go for the black one,” he tells the shop assistant. “The one with the buffalo—beautiful.”
On the closing lap of his campaign to conquer Emilia-Romagna, he paid tributes to the region’s gastronomic excellence. He filmed himself speeding past racks of cured pork hanging from hooks, proclaiming how he adores them and ended it by kissing one lovingly.
Salvini knows how he wants the story to end. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti are the king and queen “locked away in their palace,” he tells supporters. Except in his version, his enemies get to keep their heads.
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