Wed, Jun 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

In Italy’s prosperous north, firm backing for the League’s Salvini

By Angela Giuffrida  /  The Observer, PONTIDA, Italy

To his many critics, Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, is a racist opportunist who is about to take Italy down a dangerously confrontational and xenophobic path. To his supporters, in the League’s northern heartlands, he is a “warrior” whose high-profile installment as minister of the interior in western Europe’s first populist government is a symbol of the country’s much-needed pivot to the right.

That is certainly the view in Pontida, a relatively prosperous village in the northern Lombardy region’s Alpine foothills, where thousands of League supporters converge once a year for a rowdy celebration in the party’s honor.

“Salvini is a great revolutionary,” said Giuseppe Paruta, a pensioner who has supported the party since its early days as a northern Italy secessionist movement. “He’s one of us. When he comes to the festival each year, he makes a speech, eats with us, drinks with us. Sometimes he comes across as aggressive, but he’s not a bad person.”

Paruta is jokingly known around town as Pontida’s Donald Trump — he sports a hairstyle uncannily similar to that of the US president.

“I like him too, but Salvini is better,” he said.

Much like Trump, Salvini is esteemed by Paruta and his friends at the town’s Bar8 as the strongman needed to restore law and order in a country they claim is buckling under the weight of a refugee crisis.

Salvini supporters admitted they have relatively little to complain about: Their pensions are good and they own their homes.

However, they said that they resent having had to work so hard for their achievements when they see “illegal immigrants wandering around, doing nothing and not paying taxes like we had to.”

They are counting on Salvini to put a stop to all of that.

After weeks of tortured negotiations, 45-year-old Salvini was handed power over the Italian Ministry of the Interior on Friday last week, when the League was sworn into government in a coalition with its former rival, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

Salvini, born in Milan to a middle-class family, was swift to remind voters that his top priority would be to deal with thousands of illegal immigrants.

“Open doors for good people and a one-way ticket for those who come to create commotion,” Salvini said.

The government was formed despite the apparent collapse of talks when Italian President Sergio Mattarella rejected the coalition’s nomination of controversial Paolo Savona as finance minister.

The 81-year-old economist, a noted critic of the EU, had previously called the euro a “German cage” and his appointment was judged to be beyond the pale by Mattarella.

As markets went into turmoil, insults were traded with the EU and calls were made by Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio for Mattarella to be impeached.

However, faced with the prospect of fresh elections next month, Salvini and Di Maio scrambled to put together an alternative Cabinet that will now see Savona challenge the EU in the guise of European affairs minister.

Meanwhile, Giovanni Tria, an economics professor with a more moderate tone toward Europe, was named minister of finance.

Salvini and Di Maio agreed that neither should become prime minister of the new coalition, instead appointing Giuseppe Conte, a relatively unknown law professor with no political experience, to steer a government program that includes generous tax cuts, a universal basic income and a raft of policies against illegal immigrants, Roma people and Muslims.

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