Beach Boy Salvini Bids for Full Power While Italy’s on Vacation

(Bloomberg) -- Matteo Salvini’s bid for full control of Italy starts on the country’s beaches.

Already the nation’s most popular politician and riding high in the polls, the leader of the League party pulled the plug on a fractious coalition government Thursday and called for swift elections that would likely hand him a majority in parliament. It is a bold move, and doubly so given it comes in the middle of August, when most Italians are giving in to torpor as they seek respite from the summer heat.

“I wasn’t born to warm a minister’s chair,” Salvini, who serves as both deputy prime minister and interior minister, said at a campaign stop in the seaside town of Pescara this week. “I’m asking Italians if they want to give me full powers to do what we have promised to do, to the end, without delays.”

Beach Boy Salvini Bids for Full Power While Italy’s on Vacation

The question now is whether Salvini’s anti-immigrant rhetoric will fire up his supporters enough to overcome the resistance to an early vote that’s already building among opposition parties and within the Roman halls of power. Parliamentary party heads meet Monday afternoon to set a timetable for the next steps.

Salvini argues those concerns are misplaced.

“You should be scared if we were saying we don’t want elections,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “We’re not letting the people vote. We’re coming up with strange governments. We just want the people to vote.”

Salvini’s enthusiasm was palpable in the Sicilian resort of Taormina on Sunday. Tanned and not one bit self-conscious about his exposed paunch, the League leader posed for bare-chested selfies, chatted with adoring beachgoers and took a short dip in front of the cameras. The whole visit lasted little more than one hour but his fans didn’t seem to mind.

“I’ve been waiting for a long time for a politician like Salvini who has common sense,” said 68 year-old former policeman Eugenio Anselmo. “We need action on immigration, against all those people that come Italy with no control, without respecting the rules.”

The 46-year-old Salvini has been running roughshod over his rivals all year, crushing his coalition ally, the Five Star Movement, in this spring’s European elections and imposing his agenda on the government officially presided over by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. With his League party soaring to near 40% in polls, Salvini made his move.

After two frenzied days where he shuttled between Rome and evening rallies on Italy’s coast, Salvini on Thursday surprised supporters and foes with his decision to go it alone. The prize is winning a majority in parliament without having to relay on troublesome allies -- something that hasn’t happened in Italy for over 40 years.

To achieve this, he is sending Italians a clear message: I am just like you.

Beach Boy Salvini Bids for Full Power While Italy’s on Vacation

His “Italian Summer” tour -- two dozen seaside stops up and down Italy’s more than 7,000 kilometers of coastline -- is essentially aimed at this. In his short strolls on the beach, only occasionally does he mention politics. Most of his time is dedicated to mugging for selfies and chatting with voters. In the evenings, after his stump speech, he sometimes DJs at beachside discos and shimmies with models -- dressed only in a swimsuit and a neck chain with a cross.

The look may raise eyebrows among establishment Italians, but supporters are eating it up. “The more they criticize me because I mix with the people, the more I do it,” the League chief wrote in a Tweet.

His bet is that Italians will continue to warm to his abrasive rhetoric against immigrants and the European Union, and lap up his promises to fix their weak economy, inefficient public services and chronically high unemployment. And that his message will also resonate outside the League’s traditional strongholds.

Previous League leaders preferred mountain cookouts and village food fairs in Italy’s northern regions, where they preached to the faithful. The summer beach tour, though, will mostly consist of stops in the south, where the League has often struggled.

Should Salvini succeed in branching out and recasting the League, which once favored secession for the north, into a national force, it could prove fatal to the already reeling Five Star.

Most Five Star supporters -- and many of its lawmakers -- come from the poorer south. Inroads by the League in the region could spell the end for Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star leader and deputy prime minister, who has tried to morph the populist insurgency into a party with broader appeal.

The Five Star leader “is a loser,” says Anselmo, the former policeman, who like Di Maio hails from the southern region of Campania. Salvini, on the other hand, is “the only one who can give this country a direction.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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