Two Leagues, One Lega: Salvini’s Party and its Nationalism

Written by: Tommaso Rabitti

It’s been at least five years since Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s nationalist Lega party, has earned himself a place in the pantheon of European populists. His notoriety precedes him, foreign observers having attached strong labels to him: ‘the Italian Trump’, ‘modern fascist’, or, for many more still, simply a buffoon.

Salvini’s fierce nationalism, however – which many deem his defining feature – is only a recent invention. At the height of his political popularity in the summer of 2019, when he was serving as Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Salvini made headlines with his aggressive anti-migration policies. The most notable of these being his ‘closed ports’ stance, which led him to refuse entry to the port of Lampedusa to an NGO ship loaded with immigrants, culminating in his ordering of a military patrol vessel to block the ship’s attempt at docking, only a few feet away from shore.

Salvini’s rise, unlike the grandiose rhetoric he employs, begins quite humbly, and, one may add, very unpatriotically. The Lega party, as recently as 2016, had another name: Lega Nord, which translates to Northern League. The word ‘Nord’ (North) here is crucial. It defines the party’s mission to represent the northern regions of Italy and their separatist and southern-loathing inclinations. The reasons behind northern separatism in Italy’s wealthiest regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont – or even where this particular brand of normative ethno-nationalism began – merits a separate discussion. Suffice to say, Lega Nord was not a nationalist Italian party, rather a party that sought to advance the interests of a specific geographic area in Italy, and, to some extent, advocate for increased administrative autonomy and independence in northern regions, often employing explicitly insulting rhetoric against southern Italians. 

Lega Nord had never been a party with a national electorate. Enter Salvini.

In only six years, from his election to party leadership in 2013 to the summer of 2019, Salvini transformed the party. Lega Nord became Lega (simply, the League), the more separatist members of the party were sidelined, and Salvini launched his bid for the premiership by changing the discourse from ‘Northerners first’ to ‘Italians first’. A particularly cynical observer may note that Salvini merely shifted the border separating him from ‘evil foreigners’ a few hundred miles south to the coasts of North Africa.

The case study of Salvini’s Lega gives us an insight into the remarkably fluid morphology of certain types of ethno-nationalism. The ease with which Salvini was able to re-package and re-direct his message for and towards a national – and, crucially, largely southern – audience (Lega became the most voted party in Calabria) is striking.

The transformation from Lega Nord to Lega was not, however, purely alchemical. Some foundations had already been laid at the national level by Lega Nord in previous years, which have contributed to a more organic transition, namely Lega Nord’s routine presence in government through various coalition cabinets in the Berlusconi years. What this meant was that the then Lega Nord, however fiercely northern its party members and political slogans, was already used to presenting a national side. The League effectively had two souls: an institutional and a popular/regional one.

Salvini’s leadership certainly took advantage of Lega’s national platform to mobilize it in favor of the popular side; with the crucial exception that it was now built on Italian nationalism rather than Northern separatism.  

Lega’s transformation was built on a change in discourse. The original discourse of exclusion was predicated on a classic ‘us versus them’ dichotomy: North versus South. This discourse had to first become, paradoxically, a discourse of inclusion: Italy as a whole, ‘us’ as the national Italian identity, before it could re-acquire its power. The inclusionary discourse of Italian patriotism, however, could not stand on its own without losing all its mobilizing force; it thus had to be geared against something, in order to re-establish a new ‘us versus them’. Illegal immigrants and EU bureaucrats became the new ‘them’.

For the transformation of discourse to be complete, its thought leader Salvini also had to transform. To prove he now embodied the Italian identity, rather than solely the northern one, Salvini acted like a true political animal, adapting to the new environment. This is when we see Salvini going on tour in southern Italy having pictures of him taken while he jubilantly eats local foods such as buffalo mozzarella. However shocking it may seem; electoral results seem to show that – among other things – this populist ‘politics of food’ works.

The example of the League serves to show how nationalisms work by mobilizing identity. As Lega Nord became Lega, like a matryoshka doll disappearing inside its larger self, so do certain restrictive nationalisms have the potential to transform and adapt – to be absorbed into wider ideas.

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