ROME (Reuters) – In February 2017, populist firebrand Matteo Salvini accused the-then European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi of being an “accomplice” in what he termed the economic “massacre” of Italy.
Fast forward four years and Salvini has unexpectedly pledged the support of his League party for a government that Draghi is trying to put together to tackle the twin scourges of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis ravaging the country.
For a man who once campaigned for Italy to quit the European single currency, Salvini’s endorsement of Draghi marks a potential sea change for the League, shunting it out of the far-right, eurosceptic camp and into the moderate, centre right.
League politicians say it is a calculated move, aimed at improving Salvini’s image, thereby enhancing his prospects of one day becoming prime minister, while boosting the appeal of their group, whose poll ratings have been in decline.
“We want to become like the Republican Party in the United States. An inclusive party that reconciles all the positions of the Italian centre right, no one excluded,” said Giulio Centemero, a League parliamentarian told Reuters.
President Sergio Mattarella gave Draghi a mandate to form a government last week after the previous coalition collapsed, urging him to seek cross-party backing for his administration.
Salvini’s immediate response was to keep Draghi at arm’s length and push instead for early elections.
But members of his inner circle, including moderate stalwart Giancarlo Giorgetti, who is a friend of Draghi, saw it as a golden opportunity to hit the reboot button and shake off the “far-right” label that has spooked investors in the past.
“The League wants to join Draghi in order to clear its name in Europe, to get rid of its reputation as a eurosceptic party,” said a senior League source, who had helped shape the policy.
Salvini’s plain-talking, anti-migrant message has resonated with millions of Italians and helped transform the League from a troubled regional party into Italy’s most popular group, which won 34% of the vote in European parliament elections in 2019.
At the time, the League was in government with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. Carried away by his success, Salvini quit the coalition, expecting to trigger a national election. It proved a terrible miscalculation.
The centre-left Democratic Party unexpectedly replaced the League in government and dumped Salvini into opposition where his approval ratings have dropped behind that of another League politician – Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto.
Zaia is widely perceived to have done a good job tackling the coronavirus in his region and represents the old, established League, close to the industrialists and small business leaders who make up the backbone of the economy.
“The pandemic has shown that polarising policies are not accepted by citizens in the face of suffering. Voters want solutions for their problems,” said Nicola Pasini, professor of Political Sciences at the Milan University.
The old wing of the party celebrated Draghi’s promotion, confident he would draw up business-friendly plans on how to spend more than 200 billion euros ($243 billion) from a European Union fund that is designed to revitalise the battered economy.
But to guarantee a share of the spoils, they needed the League to be in the room when the decisions were being made.
At a meeting with Salvini last Thursday, party sources said the northern governors, including Zaia, joined forces with Giorgetti to convince Salvini to throw in his lot with Draghi.
“There was very little opposition to the shift in policy. The governors carry a lot of weight and when they speak in unison, Salvini tends to fall into line,” said a League lawmaker, who declined to be named.
The League has seen an immediate bump in its poll ratings thanks to its decision to join the new, broad-based government, with support climbing 0.7 points over the past week to 24% — the biggest increase of any party according to SWG pollsters.
“(Salvini’s) move shows the League is a fully mature party and makes it clear that it is a trustworthy party of government,” said Gianluca Cantalamessa, one of the League’s new wave of lawmakers from southern Italy.
Some of the League’s far-right allies in the European parliament are much less happy at the prospect of a government led by Draghi, who is expected to immediately set to work on the recovery plan, hoping to utilise all the EU funds on offer.
“It is a joke, but a very bad one that the Germans … will not be able to laugh at,” said Joerg Meuthen, co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), arguing that Berlin will end up footing much of the bill.
League politicians snapped back at him, reviving speculation that Salvini might soon abandon the nationalist faction in Europe and ask to join the European People’s Party (EPP) group — home to all Europe’s main centre-right parties.
“Joining the EPP would seem to be the logical consequence,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University. However, he predicted Salvini would change tack if the Draghi experiment failed.
“This is a strategic choice that will be consolidated only if things go well. If things go badly, then it is all over. He will return to the nationalist camp,” he said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)