Salvini: the unyielding face of Italian nationalism

Charles ONIANS
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Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has promoted a nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda

After rising to and falling from government with his "Italians first" rallying cry and anti-migrant diatribes, far-right leader Matteo Salvini remains hugely popular and has set his sights on a return to power despite an impending trial.

The 46-year-old from Milan, who stands accused of blocking migrants from leaving a coast guard boat last year, remains Italy's most vociferous and controversial politician.

Even after senators voted on Wednesday to strip him of his parliamentary immunity he cut a defiant, unyielding figure, saying that he was not worried and "proud" of what he had done.

"I will do it again as soon as I get back into power," he said.

It is a typically pugnacious stance from a man who divides public opinion. While many believe he should be running the country, others see a similarity to Benito Mussolini, the 20th century fascist leader who led Italy into the Second World War.

The former deputy prime minister and interior minister had stayed largely out of the headlines as he languished for months in opposition after a miscalculated power grab last year.

After leaving power in August, Salvini continued to promote his nationalist, anti-immigrant mantra while dismissing criticism that he uses racist, xenophobic and tasteless language.

"Thank you, finally, I would do it all again," Salvini said after he was effectively kicked out of government, his popularity remaining high largely thanks to his tough anti-migrant stance.

Latest opinion polls predict Salvini's League party would be the largest with around 30 percent of votes if snap elections were called, as Salvini wants.

However, his party suffered a major setback in January when they lost regional elections in the traditionally left-wing Emilia Romagna, breaking their previously unstoppable momentum.

Salvini's s blunt attacks on migrants, as well as Islam, gay marriage and criminals, have replaced the historic northern secessionist battle cries of the League and seen his party take region after region.

- 'Never say Italy' -

Born in Milan in 1973, Salvini joined what was then the Northern League in 1990, aged just 17, rising quickly through the ranks.

At the time, the Northern League was known for its campaign to secede from Italy, with Salvini making his name while running its Radio Padania, named after the wealthier northern region it wanted to see independent.

One of his shows was called "Never Say Italy" and in 2011, he won notoriety for boycotting Italy's 150-year anniversary celebrations, putting his desk outside Milan city hall to show he was working.

But by 2018, he was campaigning as far south as Matera in the impoverished Basilicata region, where he promised "order, rules, cleanliness" and railed against "out of control" immigration.

He has successfully shifted his party's image from defender of the wealthy north against its "parasite" south, to that of guardian of Italy's national sovereignty.

Facing a migrant crisis with hundreds of thousands landing on Italian shores, Salvini furthered his agenda by appealing to a sense of resentment among many Italians who feel Europe has abandoned them.

A staunch critic of the EU, he opposes same-sex unions, wants to deport foreign criminals and to bulldoze Roma camps.

His nationalist agenda and blunt language has reminded some Italians of the Mussolini era in the 1920s and 30s, when minority groups were persecuted.

- Putin admirer -

A savvy social media user, he successfully pushes his agenda online, updating his followers daily with live videos, photos and even pictures of what he eats.

Salvini has forged alliances with other far-right Europeans like Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Rally -- formerly the Front National -- and Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders.

A known admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Salvini has been pictured in pro-Putin T-shirts on visits to Moscow.

But his relationship with Russia is facing scrutiny after claims last year about an alleged bid by the League to broker $65 million (60 million euros) in covert Russian funding.

Salvini has denied receiving any money but continues to face questions over possible collusion.

Although happy to talk about his two children, Salvini is less happy to discuss his complicated love life.

In 2018 his then girlfriend, model and TV presenter Elisa Isoardi, broke up with him in an announcement on Instagram. Salvini posted a response while saying "I never made my private life public".

His children come from previous relationships, one with ex-wife Fabrizia Ieluzzi, a political journalist, and another former girlfriend Giulia Martinelli.