Why the League Is New Bane of Italy's Establishment

(Bloomberg) -- Thanks to its leader, Matteo Salvini, the anti-migrant party known as the League has leapfrogged its coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, to dominate the Italian political agenda and lead in opinion polls since the March 4 general election. The League’s performance, and tensions with Five Star over policy, have prompted speculation that Salvini could be tempted to try to trigger new elections in 2019.

1. What is the League?

It’s a political party born in 1989 as the Northern League for the Independence of Padania, pushing for autonomy for Italy’s northern regions. It achieved more prominence when its founder, Umberto Bossi, joined the center-right alliance of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, first briefly in 1994. The League then served in the Berlusconi governments from 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011. For years, known as the Northern League, it derided residents of Italy’s south as beggars, thieves and good-for-nothing rednecks. After Bossi became embroiled in a scandal over party funding, Salvini took over as leader in 2013 and made the party a national force, rebranding it along the way as simply the League.

2. How strong is the League?

The League finished third in March’s general election with 17.4 percent of the vote, behind Five Star’s 32.7 percent and the 18.8 percent scored by the center-left Democratic Party of then-Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. But since the Five Star/League coalition government was sworn in on June 1, the League has overtaken Five Star to become Italy’s biggest political force as measured by voters’ intentions, with 32 percent support in a September poll by the SWG Institute compared to Five Star’s 28.7 percent. Salvini has campaigned against allowing migrants from across the Mediterranean to disembark in Italian ports and pressed for rolling back pension reform and for a crackdown on crime.

3. Could the League wind up in power?

So far, the party doesn’t have enough support to govern on its own. And for now, Salvini has his sights on registering a strong League outcome in the European Parliament elections next May. If and when an early Italian general election happens, the League’s fate will ride on whether it campaigns alone, returns to the center-right alliance it fought the March vote with or -- less likely -- works out a campaign pact with Five Star.

4. What does the League stand for?

Mainly tougher curbs on immigration, stronger national sovereignty, and the efficient government it claims it has displayed in northern regions. Copying Donald Trump, Salvini has campaigned with the slogan “Italians First.” The “Contract for a Government for Change” that the League sealed with Five Star in May demanded the “compulsory and automatic resettling” of asylum seekers among EU member states, a two-tiered “flat tax” system and an end to sanctions against Russia. In the recent turmoil over Italy’s fiscal targets, the League pressed for a wider budget deficit to fund its key campaign promises.

5. Where does the League stand on the European Union?

Salvini had earlier this year talked up plans to drop the euro, saying that Italians must not be “slaves of Berlin or Brussels.” Since then he’s said that ditching the currency is not on the agenda. The contract agreed with Five Star called for a review of EU economic governance and stated that the two parties would seek an agreement with other EU states and the European Commission to exclude some investments from deficit calculation. Salvini has since then repeatedly accused the EU of leaving Italy to deal on its own with migrant arrivals.

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