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Italy’s new strongman, Deputy PM Matteo Salvini, rattles Europe and his own government

Ask Italians to identify Italy’s new prime minister, and many have no idea or guess wrong: “Salvini, right?”

Matteo Salvini is not the Prime Minister – that would be Giuseppe Conte, a little-known academic before he became Italy’s little-known leader. But it’s easy to see why Mr. Salvini’s name comes immediately to mind: He has stolen the show – not just among Italians, but Europeans, too.

Only a month into the job, he has emerged as Italy’s dominant politician. He is the Interior Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the right-wing, Euroskeptic and xenophobic League – a party that forms half the coalition government, the other half being the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

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Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

Ettore Ferrari/The Associated Press

Brimming with Euroskeptic views, Mr. Salvini , 45, has also become known as a bad boy of the European political scene. And he may just be getting started. His popularity ratings are climbing and there is little doubt he could win the next election, which may come early if he decides to capitalize with ruthless zeal on his newfound fame.

With his deep, booming voice, black beard and in-your-face stride and heft, Mr. Salvini sounds, looks and acts like a strongman leader. “Salvini is taking on the role of prime minister and he didn’t even want that job,” said Paola Subacchi, senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Mr. Salvini is everywhere. Turn on the TV and there he is, telling Italians why he is stopping a migrant rescue ship from docking at Italian ports. “Enough of Sicily being the refugee camp of Europe,” he thunders.

Turn on the radio (he is a former radio host) and he is ranting about mandatory vaccines, calling them “useless and in many cases dangerous” – an audacious statement given that he is neither a doctor nor the health minister and approved the appointment of a health minister who does not share his view.

He has called for a “census” of Italy’s Roma population to identify which of them should be deported, reviving memories of Fascist-era segregation policies. Elena Ferrante, the best-selling author of the Neapolitan Novels series, used a Guardian column to call him “xenophobic and racist.”

On Sunday, in a speech at the League’s annual rally near Milan, he called for a pan-European alliance of populist parties that would be united in their nationalistic, anti-immigrant stances. The alliance, he said, would try to overcome a “Europe of elites” in next year’s European Union parliamentary elections.

In the power corridors of Brussels, Berlin and Paris, Mr. Salvini’s Euroskeptic views are no longer considered a joke, given his status as the most influential politician in the euro zone’s third-largest economy. He has threatened to pull Italy out of the Canada-EU trade agreement, known as CETA; wants to bring Russia back into the European fold; and thinks the fiscal rules that prevent EU countries from running large budget deficits and debts are too restrictive and rob Italy of its sovereignty.

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His “Italians First” campaign was clearly inspired by Donald Trump’s “America First” and the “Hungary comes first” rants of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, another critic of the European project and its migration policies.

Mr. Salvini’s rise has sometimes been described as remarkably swift – when the opposite is true; he ground away on the backbenches of the Italian political scene for years before hitting the big time.

So unlike his M5S colleagues, Mr. Salvini has experience in both government and party politics. He was born into a middle-class family in Milan and got his break when he landed a hosting job at Radio Padania, the broadcaster of the Northern League, as the League was then called. The Northern League advocated autonomy for the wealthy northern regions, to rid themselves of the poor, unproductive, Mafia-ridden south.

Mr. Salvini later became a member of the Northern League and was elected to Milan city council in 1993, as part of the Communist list. A decade later, he gained control of the party – which had been allied with Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling centre-right party – then polling at a miserable 4 per cent. Mr. Salvini turned his party around by dropping its secessionist strategy (hence the Northern League became the League), shedding his own communist leanings and adopting a nationalist mantra as the flow of migrants surged and austerity measures convinced many Italians that replacing the lira with the euro had been economically foolhardy.

But a lot of his popularity comes from his blunt way of talking and his turbocharged masculinity. Ms. Subacchi of Chatham House says “Salvini is like a young Berlusconi. He’s a strong man, he likes women, he’s not politically correct. All that appeals to many Italians, who have always been fascinated by strong men.”

Italians have a fondness, too, for anti-establishment figures. James Hansen, the American former journalist and spokesman for Mr. Berlusconi who runs the Milan consulting firm Hansen Worldwide, remembers when Hungarian-born porn star Ilona Staller was elected to the Italian parliament in 1987. “They didn’t vote for her because they thought she’d be an able politician. They thought it was a wonderful way of spitting in the eye of the political establishment,” Mr. Hansen said, noting that Mr. Salvini enjoys, and nurtures, a similar iconoclastic image.

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The migration “crisis,” as many Italians view it, has been a godsend for Mr. Salvini. Italy has absorbed about 600,000 migrants in recent years, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. There was a time when most of the migrants who landed in Italy fled north, to Germany or Sweden, where jobs were more plentiful. (Italy suffers from an 11-per-cent jobless rate.) But that route has been blocked by France and Austria. The migrants are bottled up in Italy, and many Italians want them gone. Italians are understandably angry at the other EU countries, which have done virtually nothing to lighten Italy’s migrant burden.

“Salvini was very simple,” Ms. Subacchi said. “He closed the ports – that was very effective.”

Matteo Salvini.

STEFANO RELLANDINI/Reuters

For Mr. Salvini, the high point came when French President Emmanuel Macron lashed out at Italy in mid-June for preventing a ship laden with more than 600 migrants from docking at a southern Italian port. Mr. Macron called the move “cynical and irresponsible.” (The ship went to Spain.)

Mr. Salvini and other Italian government ministers responded by calling the French government hypocritical, given that it had closed its own borders to migrants who had landed in Italy. Italians loved the spat between the two countries. Mr. Hansen calls it an instance of Mr. Salvini being popularized “by his enemies.”

Mr. Salvini seems to have a bright future, partly because he has no obvious challengers. With Mr. Berlusconi fading away, Mr. Salvini is the de facto leader of the conservative right. The centre-left Democratic Party, which formed the previous government, is in tatters. M5S, under Luigi Di Maio, is still the single-largest party in Italy. But Mr. Di Maio, a 31-year-old political neophyte, lacks the charisma and experience to displace Mr. Salvini as the country’s commanding political personality.

But anything can happen in the wild world of Italian politics. Italian voters may like rogues, but they have little patience for reckless adventurers who promise revolutions that could jeopardize their jobs and their pensions. Italy is, at its core, a deeply conservative society. If implemented in full, the economic proposals of the League-M5S government, including a flat tax and a guaranteed minimum income, could cost fortunes, blow the budget wide open and trigger another financial crisis that could destabilize the banks, send sovereign bond yields soaring and repel voters.

In the meantime, Mr. Salvini is enjoying his status as chief tormenter of the European project and the politician who finally said no to the migrant rescue ships. In Europe and in Italy, he is the man of the moment as the era of the strongman emerges.

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