August 9, 2019 / 4:52 PM / a month ago

No beach bum: Salvini's populist seaside gambit stymies critics

ROME/CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) - Italians take their August beach holidays very seriously and politicians traditionally avoid disturbing them for fear of losing votes. But Matteo Salvini has little time for tradition and nowhere is taboo for his high-octane, non-stop campaigning.

A woman uses a mobile phone while sunbathing at the beach in Catania, on the island of Sicily, Italy, August 9, 2019. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

When the leader of the right-wing League announced on Thursday that he was pulling the plug on a year-old ruling coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, he did it from the Adriatic beach town of Pescara.

Salvini had prepared the ground with a fiery speech the night before in Sabaudia, a seaside resort on the Mediterranean coast, south of Rome. Both were stops on a “beach tour” that he hopes will lead him to triumph at elections he would like to see in a couple of months.

Shrugging off frowns from high-brow commentators and opponents, Salvini has made the beaches his political stage, a perfect venue for his down-market, “man-of-the-people” persona - and the more crowded and less exclusive they are the better.

“Jesus went from town to town to spread the word, Salvini isn’t Jesus but he knows he needs the support of everybody,” said Ubaldo Cuspilici, a 27-year-old business innovation specialist as he sunbathed on the rocks in Sicily.

“He is a great chameleon, he is able to speak and identify with every social class,” he added.

The League filed a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Friday, a move Salvini hopes will trigger snap elections. Even though parliament is in recess, Salvini chivvied lawmakers to get back to Rome.

“There’s nothing to say that we cannot make parliamentarians work in the middle of August. Lawmakers should get off their bums and work,” he said.

Conte, stung by Salvini’s move to sack him, said pointedly on Thursday that most ministers had been hard at work through summer and were “not on the beach”.

NUTELLA AND POT-BELLIES

Far from being offended by the intrusion of a politician, selfie-seeking holidaymakers have swarmed to the attraction, and Salvini is always available to press the flesh and swap high-fives.

He spent his own summer holidays last week at Milano Marittima, a popular Adriatic resort, where, in bermuda shorts among the masses, he drew much criticism for his daily antics ogling female beach dancers or improvising as a disc jockey.

Chiara Saraceno, a sociology professor at Turin University, says Salvini’s beach gambit is harvesting support.

“The message is that ‘I holiday like you, I am vulgar like you, I eat Nutella on bread like you do and I have a bit of a pot-belly like you’ - and it is very effective,” she said.

“Whereas before Italian politicians holidayed on boats or quiet spots, Salvini mixes, and people say ‘he’s one of us and he’ll fight for our interests’.”

Nonetheless, a national election campaign in August is unprecedented in post-war Italy. Salvini’s move to sink the government was the main talking point among those on Catania beach in Sicily - and he had plenty of critics.

“He wants to exploit the weakness of the center-left opposition and launch a swift election campaign, riding high on the back of his European election triumph,” said Gianluigi Ferraris, a 27-year-old IT consultant.

Slideshow (9 Images)

“He wants to speed up the vote so the other parties won’t have time to prepare for the campaign,” he added before putting his headphones back on to resume his sunbathing.

Beatrice De Santis, 52, sitting up from her towel on a secluded spot on the rocks, said Salvini had behaved badly by sticking the knife into Conte.

“He made his move in August because it’s a time when public opinion is distracted, when people are on holiday and are not thinking about politics,” she said.

Writing by Gavin Jones; Additional reporting by Antonio Parrinello; Editing by Frances Kerry

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