Matteo Salvini’s Northern League

Lindsay Mackenzie
7 min readOct 28, 2020


With no fewer than 60 governments since the end of the Second World War, Italy is no stranger to dysfunctional politics. The election on March 4 was no exception. In what was a victory for anti-establishment, populist and radical-right parties, the 5-Star Movement swept the south of the country, emerging as the largest single party. The League, a member of the broader right-wing coalition which won the most votes overall, did well in the north. Together, these parties gained almost 50 per cent. Throw in the support for the far-right Brothers of Italy — which has roots you can trace back to Mussolini’s fascists — and a majority of the population voted for parties railing against the status quo.

But with Italy’s new, and rather complicated, electoral system (a combination of proportional representation and first-past-the-post), and no party or coalition achieving the necessary majority to govern, the country is still without a government. While Italian President Sergio Mattarella recently started talks on forming one, gridlock remains. Bickering between parties has complicated forming a viable majority. It is not clear how it will be resolved.

Whatever happens, the election confirmed a major shift in Italian politics. In the run up to the vote, the return of Silvo Berlusconi — leader of Forza Italia, another member of the right-wing coalition — dominated the headlines. Although banned from taking office due to a fraud conviction, Mr Berlusconi was regarded as a kingmaker in any potential deal. He was even seen by Brussels as a stable force in an otherwise rocky political climate. But the election result was a massive blow for Mr Berlusconi. Once the dominant force on the right in Italian politics, he and his party were overtaken by its junior partner, the League. Its new leader, Matteo Salvini, has transformed the party. In 2013 it looked on the ropes. Now it is a powerbroker in its own right. Mr Salvini may even become Italy’s new Prime Minister.

What happened?

Party of the north

The League (or Norther League as it was known until recently), was formed in the early 1990s. A regionalist populist party, it emerged out of the collapse of Italy’s ‘first Republic’ and the ‘clean hands’ investigations that revealed corruption at the heart of the establishment. Arrests were made across politics and business in a political earthquake on a scale not repeated in Europe since. These events are essential to understanding contemporary Italy. The mismanagement of resources and money, the sleaze and the crookedness, it all fed into a growing public disenchantment, anger and apathy. Large, mainstream parties with rich histories — the equivalent of UK Labour and Conservative — disappeared from the political scene. Italian politics would never be the same again.

It was the perfect environment for the untainted League and its anti-centralist, anti-statist message. The League’s founder, the charismatic and provocative Umberto Bossi, shaped the party around a specific northern identity under threat from the ‘other’; southerners, migrants, bureaucrats in Rome (all described as corrupt parasites). The geographical division of Italy was key to the party’s discourse, and informed a desire for greater northern autonomy and even independence.

This potential state became known as Padania, and made up most of the Po Valley in the north of the country. Despite essentially being a constructed ‘heartland’ — Italy has no history of political regionalism –, it was portrayed as having its own culture, history and unity. The League gave it a flag, an anthem, and various other tropes associated with identity. This domestic division was based on a xenophobic and ethnocentric resentment of the south, which was described as backward, lazy, and Mediterranean. By comparison, the north was hardworking, entrepreneurial, moral. Slogans like “When a people like those of Padania are on the move, history bends” appeared in many a party manifesto.

Yet Mr Bossi was also a tactical opportunist and the party was not always straightforward to categorise. It had a habit of changing policy emphasis depending on the political climate of the time. It was pro-European but also Eurosceptic; pro-business but anti-globalisation. And its railing against the inefficiencies of the state was balanced with a pragmatic approach to governing. Indeed, the party gained considerable experience at subnational and national levels of rule. It even took part in the 1994 coalition government — the first of Italy’s ‘second Republic’ — thanks to an invitation from Mr Berlusconi. In comparison to many other populist parties across Europe, it has been surprisingly successful.

Changing of the guard

While the strength of autonomy and independence rhetoric would fluctuate over time, the anti-immigration and racist slurs became more prominent and ugly. The League increasingly linked immigrants to crime, drugs and prostitution. Crude posters with slogans including ‘No to the Hordes!’ become common amongst the party literature. The fact that migrant labour was integral to the economy of the north mattered little. Mr Bossi stated that migrant boats landing in Sicily could be halted by a few cannon shots. It wasn’t pretty.

In 2012, Mr Bossi’s rule came to an abrupt end. He stepped down as leader after a fraud scandal engulfed the party and his family — rather ironic given the League’s anti-corruption message. In the 2013 national elections the party achieved — perhaps in way of punishment — only 4 per cent. In the same year, Matteo Salvini took over the leadership. Expectations for the League’s future were not particularly high.

But Mr Salvini has rebranded the party, tweaking its ideology along the way. The anti-southern rhetoric that once defined the League has been replaced by the defence of Italian security and identity. Forget the north, ‘Italy first’ was the mantra in last month’s election. Hostility is now directed towards those outside national borders, not within. Any talk of autonomy — let alone independence — has been dropped. Mr Salvini has apologised for the language used against southerners, including his own. A sister organisation was even set up to compete in local elections called ‘Us With Salvini’ — clearly an attempt to detoxify the party brand.

Mr Salvini has also positioned the League as being part of a wider populist radical-right family. While Mr Bossi was suspicious of the likes of the French National Front (too centralised, too statist), Mr Salvini has embraced them. And while Mr Bossi trained his sights on ‘thieving Rome’, this new incarnation of the League mirrors its compatriots in France, Germany and the Netherlands in opportunistically targeting Brussels and the euro currency. A varying degree of Euroscepticism is now a key pillar of the party. The other is opposing immigration.

Indeed, anti-immigration and nativist rhetoric has become even more extreme under Mr Salvini. At a recent rally in Rome Mr Salvini said he was “sick of seeing the immigrants in the hotels and the Italians who sleep in cars”. Before last month’s vote a candidate for the League remarked that immigration must stop because it endangered the “white race”. Over 600,000 migrants, mainly from Africa, have landed on Italy’s shores in the last four years. While the numbers have slowed due to a controversial deal with Libya, the League has still been able to take advantage of both domestic and EU mismanagement of the crisis. It dominated the election.

What now?

The League, now Italy’s oldest party, has shown surprising endurance. In many ways Mr Salvini has continued Mr Bossi’s ‘malleable ideology’ of reorientating the party’s political priorities. But it will also need to be careful. The League may have dropped ‘Northern’ from its name, as well as its anti-southern rhetoric, but it will take more than a rebranding and an apology to become a national party. It is also not clear what effect all this will have on traditional supporters. The lack of internal debate over relegating the party’s northern identity — once its defining feature — is striking. Interviews with League members reveal many see the move as a short term, pragmatic step to boost support. Mr Salvini’s own ambitions suggest they may well be disappointed.

For now, talks on forming Italy’s new government remain unpredictable. Disagreements between, and within, different political parties have so far lead to stalemate. The centre-right coalition — made up of Forza Italia, Brothers of Italy and the League — has tried to put on a united front. As leader of its biggest party, Mr Salvini may yet become Italy’s Premier. But the largest party from the election, the 5-Star Movement, continues to divide all those involved. Some want to work with it — others don’t. Political loyalty can be fickle, though, and one imagines something will have to give before Italy gets a new government.

Whatever happens, the recent election revealed a high level of public distrust with the established status quo. Many Italians feel let down by not only the ruling class at home, but also in Brussels. Whether it be the slow economic recovery or the unease about the management of immigration, confidence in the abilities of those in charge is low. It has caused a significant shake-up of Italy’s political geography. The old guard are fading. Once Mr Berlusconi leaves the stage for good, a vacuum will open up on the right of politics. There will be few options to fill it apart from the League. The party’s best election result is likely still to come.

April 2018




Lindsay Mackenzie

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