- - Thursday, March 8, 2018

ROME — A former socialist and quiz show contestant who has never held a full-time job, Matteo Salvini, has unexpectedly emerged as the de facto leader of the Italian right over comeback-minded Silvio Berlusconi after the Northern League, the right-wing political party he heads, exceeded expectations in Sunday’s national elections and put itself in the center of the jockeying over the next government in Rome.

Backroom negotiations over the next governing coalition are underway, but the result could put Mr. Salvini, whose party was long dismissed as an anti-immigration fringe faction with limited national appeal, in a position to become Italy’s prime minister. Even if he falls short, the 44-year-old Milan native will certainly have a big say in who takes over, said Arianna Montanari, a political scientist and sociologist with Rome’s La Sapienza University.

La Lega, as the party is called in Italian, won nearly 17.5 percent of the electorate in a crowded field with 5.7 million votes. That was a dramatic improvement over the 4.1 percent share of the national vote five years ago.

The Northern League captured seats in Italy’s poorer south — far from its original political base — and finished ahead of the more mainstream conservative party of Mr. Berlusconi, the 81-year-old billionaire former prime minister who was banking on a well-publicized political comeback. With Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at 14 percent, down from 21.6 percent five years ago, Mr. Salvini has first claim to represent the conservative bloc in political negotiations.

It’s a remarkable rebound for a party that Italy’s political establishment long dismissed as beyond the pale, given its ultranationalism, criticism of immigrants and Muslims, attacks on the European Union and praise for Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It’s also one more sign of a tectonic shift in Italian politics in which the single biggest vote winner, the Five-Star Movement, is a web-based party founded by a comedian with policy positions that span the political spectrum.

The 2013 election was no doubt a low point in the history of La Lega. In addition to its weak support, the party was reeling from bad press in the wake of the resignation of founder Umberto Bossi amid charges that he used party funds for his family.

Mr. Bossi founded the party in the 1980s on the belief that Italy should be divided into two countries. The poorer, less-industrialized southern regions would keep the name of Italy, and the wealthier northern regions that formed La Lega’s base would split away to become the “Republic of Padania.”

New direction

In search of a new direction after the 2013 vote, La Lega turned to Mr. Salvini, who was almost unknown outside party circles but who proved to be a canny strategist with a down-home, nonestablishment charisma.

“Under Salvini, La Lega was transformed from a party with almost all its support in the north to a national force,” said Alessandro Franzi, co-author of a biography of Mr. Salvini called “Matteo Salvini #theMilitant.”

Mr. Franzi said the party also evolved from one that represented a kind of U.S.-style conservatism — anti-migration, pro-guns and more regional autonomy — to a populist party more in line with rising European right parties such as Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front. La Lega retains its hard line on restricting immigration but has become far more skeptical of globalization, the European Union and the common euro currency.

In fact, Ms. Le Pen was among the first European leaders to offer congratulations to Mr. Salvini after Sunday’s vote.

The La Lega chief is a fan of President Trump. During the campaign, he liberally used a photo the two took together in Philadelphia in 2016.

All told, it’s a dramatic evolution for Mr. Salvini, who turns 45 on Friday. His first national exposure — albeit in a nonpolitical role — was as a 20-year-old contestant on the game show “Lunch Is Served,” where contestants answer questions to earn the five courses of a traditional lunch.

Soon after, Mr. Salvini dropped out of the University of Milan and became one of the leaders of Leoncavallo, a socialist welfare center in Milan. In his first foray into politics, Mr. Salvini was a socialist candidate for the symbolic regional parliament of Padania.

“The changes in Salvini’s thinking came fairly quickly, and all indications are it was in a large part due to political ambition,” said Alessandro Madron, Mr. Franzi’s co-author on the Salvini biography. “The only way to move forward in the Northern League was to move closer to the political right.”

Ms. Montanari, the political scientist, said Mr. Salvini will have a bigger voice in government than Mr. Bossi ever dreamed.

“Under Bossi, the party was always a junior member of the coalitions supporting Berlusconi,” she said. “Now the roles have turned around. Salvini is the new head of the Italian right, a kind of new fascist.”

Many Italians who supported La Lega heading into Sunday’s vote bristle at the “fascist” label and reject ties to the movement started by Benito Mussolini before World War II.

“It’s not fascism; it’s just a priority of putting the priorities of Italians first,” said Alessandro Vernucci, 36, a nurse.

Mr. Vernucci, who lives in the working-class periphery of Rome, said he met Mr. Salvini briefly just outside his apartment in the days leading up to the vote.

“He’s the only candidate who came to the town where I live to ask questions and to listen to our concerns,” Mr. Vernucci said. “That’s what a politician is supposed to do, but he was the only one.”

Antonio Mezza, a 40-year-old youth soccer coach living near Rome, agreed.

“I don’t care if they want to call us fascists or whatever,” Mr. Mezza said. “I don’t care about labels. What I care about is getting this country moving again, and I think Salvini’s leadership can do it.”

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