March 7, 2018 / 5:33 PM / in 3 months

Matteo Salvini, the everyman leader of Italy's populist revolt

ROME (Reuters) - Matteo Salvini is a euroskeptic, far-right nationalist whose Donald Trump-like “Italians First” slogan resonated after years of anemic growth and mass migration, giving him a shot at becoming Italy’s next prime minister.

FILE PHOTO: Northern League leader Matteo Salvini gestures during a meeting in Rome, Italy, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

His League party - with or without its center-right allies - could form a populist government with the anti-system 5-Star Movement, confirming the worst fears of Europe’s establishment. The League would play second fiddle, having won 17 percent of the vote versus more than 32 percent for 5-Star.

But whether such a government takes office will only be known in April, when President Sergio Mattarella begins consultations following the inconclusive vote.

For now, Salvini is asserting his leadership over Italy’s right, after dethroning four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi from a role the media magnate had played for almost a quarter of a century.

Salvini prevailed with a laser-like focus on the issues of mass immigration, tax cuts and pensions, capitalizing not only on his popularity on the TV talk show circuit, but also by incessantly pecking Tweets on his iPad or shooting a Facebook live in a car while hurtling toward his next appointment.

Bearded, stocky and casually dressed, the 44-year-old Salvini showed his stamina on the campaign trail.

“I’m lucky enough not to need sleep, but after two or three days following him around, I’m dead,” said League economics chief Claudio Borghi, who has worked closely with Salvini and is behind the party’s anti-euro stance.

On the last day of the campaign, Salvini Tweeted: “After more than 300 rallies and 5 kilos (11 pounds) lighter, I’m tired but happy.”

Salvini’s euroskeptism is what concerns investors most, but no other large parties are questioning the single currency, so there appears to be no way to form an anti-euro government.

But a populist government that wants to throw off the shackles of EU-imposed budget austerity and espouses a much more virulent stance toward the hundreds of thousands of boat migrants who have come to Italy in recent years is possible, and Salvini would be the perfect spokesman for it.

“AUTHENTIC”

In his youth, Salvini was in the communist phalange of the Northern League. Then he set aside his left-wing sympathies to become a Milan city councillor for many years, taking over the party in a 2013 primary against its founder Umberto Bossi, who had been engulfed in a corruption scandal.

Bossi’s party had lobbied for the north, demanding that tax money should not be funneled to the country’s underdeveloped south. Salvini transformed it into a national force, upsetting veterans who felt it should remain loyal to its original roots.

Dropping the rhetoric against the poor southerners, Salvini instead took aim at African migrants and hooked up with Europe’s extreme right, including the National Front of France’s Marine Le Pen and the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders.

One of the few Italians to welcome Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Salvini also flew to the United States in 2016 during the presidential campaign to have his picture taken with Trump. He also sings the praises of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said Salvini was one of the leaders of Italy’s “populist, nationalist revolt”, adding that he came across as an “authentic” personality capable of providing “solutions to problems”, as he said Trump has done in the United States.

“People are tired of the double talk, they’re tired of the political correctness,” Bannon told Reuters last week.

In the last days of the campaign Salvini appealed to Italy’s Catholics by waving rosary prayer beads and a bible in front of crowds in Milan as he swore to be faithful to his people.

While very much a straight talker, Salvini is no Trump. He rarely commits a gaffe and sticks closely to his script. Unlike Berlusconi, Salvini was happy to meet the foreign press before the vote and never lost his cool during a prolonged grilling.

But that does not mean Salvini is not divisive. Using “stop the invasion” as a slogan, the League attacked the ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD) for its handling of the migrant crisis. In Tweets and on TV, Salvini portrayed migrants as criminals and called for mass deportations.

After a top League politician said Italy’s “white race” was under threat, Salvini supported him.

“We are under attack. Our culture, society, traditions and way of life are at risk,” he said.

After a Nigerian migrant was arrested on suspicion of killing an Italian teenager, Salvini wrote: “What was this worm still doing in Italy? The left has blood on its hands.”

Days later, a man with neo-Nazi sympathies and ties to the League opened fire on African migrants in the city of Macerata, wounding six before he was captured.

In Florence, a day after the election, an Italian man shot a Senegalese immigrant six times, killing him. The shooter was in a state of confusion, police said, denying it was a racist attack. But the city’s Senegalese community blamed Salvini.

“We all saw Salvini for months and months spread a hateful and racist message,” Pape Diaw, a representative of Florence’s Senegalese community, told Reuters at a protest by 500 people on Tuesday on the bridge where the murder took place.

Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Silvia Ognibene in Florence; Editing by Giles Elgood

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