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Salvini’s Gamble: Can a Populist Army General Save Lega?

In late April, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini announced that Army General Roberto Vannacci would be a Lega candidate for the European Parliament elections. To some, this announcement was a shock, but the choice aligns with Salvini’s fight against the “woke” generation and its politics. The once highly regarded General Vannacci garnered controversial media attention for his views on women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

Salvini’s decision to bring along a particularly controversial figure highlights his desire to continue leveraging the fears of dissatisfied Italians in a bid to hold onto power. For Salvini, this is crucial, as he must win at least 7% of the vote in the EU elections to maintain his position in the government.

Lega is not a party that finds consistency in the polls. In the 2013 Italian general elections, Lega found itself with only 4% of the total vote, which skyrocketed to 17% in the 2018 general elections but came back down to 8.8% in the 2022 general elections. Similar ebbs and flows are noticeable in EU elections. In 2014, Lega received 6%, in 2019, a staggering 34%, and is currently projected to receive 9%. Thus, Salvini rightfully understands the need to continue innovating the party.

From the pro-northern Lega Nord, it transitioned to Lega in 2017 to secure southern votes. Lega’s rebranding was ironic, as Lega Nord believed southern Italy was holding back the north and called for a parting of the ways. Historically, southern voters are less well-educated, and unemployment is high, so they are generally less supportive of the European Union, which is crucial for Matteo Salvini as he wants to leverage the concerns of voters who feel they are being taken advantage of by Brussels. The latest transformation in 2020 was Lega per Salvini Premier, tying Salvini’s populism and publicity stunts to the party’s name.

In 2023, General Vannacci released a book titled Il mondo al contrario (The world upside down). His claims about homosexuals being abnormal and deviants, along with claims on what it means to be ‘truly’ Italian, brought him to the center of Italian media. The attention moved a lot of books off the shelves, and the book was an Italian bestseller for a week. While there was mainstream criticism that influenced his dismissal from the military, Vannacci found an audience with Salvini and the loving embrace of far-right Italians. Salvini is a firm believer that Italy is not “Europe’s refugee camp” and that Brussels cannot define the concept of a family. Therefore, Salvini and Vannacci’s partnership seems ideal as it continues to bring the party deeper into the populist route, a move that permits Lega to cultivate populist sentiment in Italy.

If the results hold steady, Vannacci will be a newly elected Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Lega appears to have beat its low expectations. Salvini’s gamble, by taking in a controversial figure, appears to have paid off to some extent. Lega stays above the 7% threshold for Salvini to remain in power, but it suffered in comparison to other conservative parties, with the youth vote, and the candidate votes threatening Salvini’s position in the party.

According to the latest results, Lega performed the worst of all the parties in Italy’s current governing coalition. Although Forza Italia (FI) merged with Noi Moderati (NM) for the EU elections, their projection of 9.7% is greater than their combined 2022 general election votes. While Salvini might celebrate the uptick in votes from the latest elections, he will not be content with moving down the pecking order. With a center and far-right that are ambitious in their goals of forming a larger party and impacting European-wide legislation, Salvini will want to say he had a hand in this next wave. But the mediocre result of his party will stand as a reality check.

With the 18–29-year-old vote slipping away from Lega, the party is pursuing an unsustainable strategy. Italian youth, by and large, value the European Union: open borders, more access to jobs, fewer barriers to studying abroad, and a check on Rome. With Lega haranguing the European Union on countless social and political issues, young voters can see that Lega is happy being the arsonist if it means destroying the European Union from within. Although Salvini can count on Italy’s aging population for some support, he can’t completely alienate young Italians.

Roberto Vannacci’s views did not stop him from becoming Lega’s most-voted candidate; in fact, such provocatory comments towards immigrants may have convinced some voters that someone finally “hears” their concerns. Voters in Italy feel abandoned by Rome as wages have been relatively stagnant, immigrants continue to arrive by boat, and anger over Italian sovereignty being jeopardized by the European Union. Vannacci’s vote tally, an overwhelming 530,000 votes, arguably helped save Lega – thus, Salvini’s gamble paid off. Yet, Vannacci’s strong performance might signal a shift in the party, and that it might be time for Salvini to step aside and let a fresh face lead.

The move to include Roberto Vannacci as a candidate highlights the ever-worsening situation in Italian politics. Vannacci was not chosen for his military expertise (he was awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit), but simply for his nationalistic and populist views. Yet this election cycle proved that both sides of the political spectrum gave into flights of fancy, as the Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra opted to nominate Ilaria Salis, a protestor held on house arrest in Hungary, for MEP. Both the far left and right aim to leverage political outrage to further their own futures. Such chaos is already unsustainable on the national level and will only bring further problems to Europe.