When the coronavirus hit Italy with a fury early along its path around the world, few politicians seemed better positioned to benefit from the crisis than Matteo Salvini. The populist leader of Italy’s far-right League party, who stood at the top of the polls, immediately pounced on the opportunity to promote his core nationalist ideas while disparaging the government, hoping to trigger the elections that he hoped would make him prime minister. But in an unexpected twist, Salvini’s dream of capitalizing on COVID-19 is being thwarted.
It’s early yet, but Salvini could turn into one of the most prominent political casualties of the pandemic. The golden boy of Europe’s anti-immigration populists, Salvini led the League—formerly the Northern League—to a first-place finish in elections for the European parliament a year ago. His spectacular rise was propelled by the refugee and migrant crisis that brought hundreds of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East to Italy’s shores, giving him a platform against immigration, and a new argument for opposing the European Union and its approach to the crisis. His populist theatrics raised his profile and his party’s fortunes.
After a strong showing in Italy’s 2018 elections, the League joined with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to form a coalition government in which Salvini served as deputy prime minister, but also interior minister, allowing him to enact his anti-immigrant agenda. But then, Salvini overplayed his hand, calling a no-confidence vote last August, which he hoped would result in new elections. Instead, the Five Star Movement joined with the Democratic Party to form a new government, and Salvini ended up in the opposition, again hoping for a chance at new elections.