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Italy’s Precarious Triumph Over Populism

Reports of Matteo Salvini’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Matteo Salvini in Rome, August 2019 Remo Casilli / Reuters

Last month, Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing populist Lega party, attempted a Machiavellian power move. Hoping to take advantage of his soaring popularity, he brought down his own government, with the clear intention of forcing elections that would return him as Italy’s uncontested strongman. To his own and most Italians’ surprise, his jilted coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, turned around and formed a new government with the center-left Democratic Party (DP), until then the government’s principal opposition. 

And so Salvini had transformed what appeared as a moment of historic triumph for the right into a major opportunity for the left. Salvini had committed what the Italians call an autogol, a soccer term for accidentally kicking the ball into your own net. 

“The idea of saving our country from a swerve into dangerous populism based on hatred prevailed,” said Nicola Zingaretti, the secretary of the Democratic Party. When the new coalition was announced, many commentators breathed a sigh of relief that Italy had prevented what some feared would be the “Orbanization” of Italy, or the emergence of a far-right government, led by Salvini, that would follow the neo-authoritarian model of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.  

But whether the new government halts the rise of right-wing populism more than temporarily will depend on its ability to improve Italy’s standard of living and reverse some negative trends that have made the country one of the weaker links in the European Union. To fix all this would be a tall order for any government, let alone one composed of two parties—each riven by serious internal divisions—that were bitter rivals until a few weeks ago. In other words, if Italy does not begin to address the problems that paved the way for Salvini’s ascendancy, the country will have him to contend with whenever elections are held next. 

THE RISE OF THE POPULISTS

In the early 1990s, Italy’s GDP was on a par with that of the United Kingdom. Now it is

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