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Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s League party

After transforming from northern federalist movement to Italian nationalist party, the League now hopes to take power along with other right-wing parties at the upcoming election.

League party leader Matteo Salvini on stage during the party's annual rally in Pontida on September 15, 2019.
League party leader Matteo Salvini on stage during the party's annual rally in Pontida on September 15, 2019. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

As Italy’s general election nears, The Local is publishing a series of articles introducing the key parties and political figures you need to know about.

Here’s a quick guide to Italy’s League (Lega), its history, policies, support, and key figures.

Origins

Italy’s League (Lega in Italian) was founded in 1991. That might sound young but it actually makes it the oldest party in Italy’s last parliament.

For most of its life, the League was the Northern League (Lega Nord). The party was born as a federation of several regional parties from northern and central Italy (Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany), and its main purpose was to push for federalism and greater autonomy for the north.

In the lead up to the 2018 general election, however, the group changed its name and rebranded as a something of a nationalist, nativist party, with ‘Italians first’ (Prima gli italiani) as its slogan.

The party’s current full name – which no one ever uses – is in fact Lega per Salvini Premier, (‘League for Salvini Prime Minister’), highlighting its emphasis on getting leader Matteo Salvini into the top position. This outcome seems unlikely for the September 2022 elections, however, for reasons discussed below.

A woman holds a League poster during a rally of the party in Catania, Sicily, on October 2, 2020.
A woman holds a League poster during a rally of the party in Catania, Sicily, on October 2, 2020. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP. 

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Ideology

In the beginning, the League’s aims were focused on achieving more power for Italy’s regions – particularly the northern ones. The party popularised the concept of ‘Padania’, an imaginary Italian macroregion encompassing everything north of Tuscany, Marche and Umbria, and alternately pushed for greater fiscal autonomy and all-out secession.

Since the party’s 2018 election rebrand, however, it’s moved increasingly further away from this kind of separatist talk. Salvini now focuses mainly on crime and immigration, frequently inveighing against both on his social media accounts; during his tenure as interior minister in 2018-2019, he passed the anti-migrant ‘Salvini decree’.

This has led to the League being branded in the press as a far-right party, but political scientists have suggested that ‘hard-right populist’ might be a more accurate label, as the group doesn’t really have a fixed ideology and – unlike its 2022 coalition partner Brothers of Italy – isn’t descended from any of the post-fascist parties that sprang up in Italy after Mussolini’s fall.

The League has always been critical of the EU, but in recent years has moved away from talk of monetary sovereignty. The party’s policies for the 2022 election include a 15 percent flat tax, creating offshore ‘hot spots’ to process asylum seekers, stepping up internal security spending, and changing Italy’s political system from a parliamentary democracy to a French-style presidential one.

Salvini’s historically close ties to Russia have come under renewed scrutiny lately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At a recent joint press conference with coalition partner Brothers of Italy, he said the EU should ‘rethink’ its sanctions on Russia – causing Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni to be pictured burying her face in her hands.

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Salvini (R) on stage with Meloni and coalition partner Berlusconi at a joint rally October 19, 2019 in Rome.
Salvini (R) on stage with Meloni and coalition partner Berlusconi at a joint rally October 19, 2019 in Rome. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

Support

The League won just under 18 percent of the vote in the 2018 general election, making it the second largest party in Italy’s parliament after it joined forces with the populist Five Star Movement to form a ruling coalition.

That alliance didn’t last long, with League pulling out of the government in 2019 in an attempt to capitalise on its success in the polls by forcing a snap election. It didn’t work, and only led to the party losing its place in government to the centre-left and Salvini forfeiting his positions of interior minister and co-deputy prime minister.

Since then, Italy has had two more governments, both of which collapsed, and the League has seen its support slide several points, down to around 14 percent.

Despite its relatively low approval ratings, the League is nonetheless set to play a key role in the next government thanks to its decision to ally itself with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which as of early September 2022 were polling at 7 percent and 24 percent respectively.

This ‘centre-right’ or centrodestra (in reality, hard-right) coalition is expected to sweep a majority in the September 25th elections.

In this graph of Italian political opinion polls from March 2018 to September 2022, the League is marked in green.
In this graph of Italian political opinion polls from March 2018 to September 2022, the League is marked in green. Graph: Impru20/Wikimedia Commons

Big names

Umberto Bossi — a former rock singer and laboratory technician — was the founder of the League and led the party until 2012. He allied the Northern League with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in three coalition governments during that time, though the relationship was a rocky one. He resigned over alleged appropriation of party funds in 2012, and in 2017 was convicted of fraud.

Matteo Salvini has led the party ever since. He’s noted for his strong anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, which he disseminates via his social media machine la Bestia (‘the Beast’), and is the subject of an ongoing kidnapping trial for blocking a migrant rescue boat from docking in Italy in 2019. Having had a turn as interior minister and deputy prime minister, he now has his eye on Italy’s top job – but because his party’s not the largest in his coalition, that title’s expected to go to Giorgia Meloni, a dynamic that will no doubt be a source of tension if the right does come to power in the next election.

Salvini delivers a speech on stage during a united rally with the Brothers of Italy and Forza Italia parties on July 4, 2020 in Rome.
Salvini delivers a speech on stage during a united rally with the Brothers of Italy and Forza Italia parties on July 4, 2020 in Rome. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

READ ALSO: Your introductory guide to Italian politics

ITALIAN ELECTIONS

ANALYSIS: Italy’s hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Italian election winner Giorgia Meloni may at first glance have much in common with ultra-conservative governments in fellow EU nations Poland and Hungary, but experts say that when it comes to real-world policy any alliance could soon run into limits.

ANALYSIS: Italy's hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Reaction to Sunday’s strong result for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was muted from pillars of EU integration like Paris and Berlin, but Warsaw and Budapest were warm in their congratulations.

“We’ve never had greater need of friends sharing a vision of and a common approach to Europe,” the Hungarian government said, while from Poland came praise for Meloni’s “great victory”.

“Hungary and Poland are more than happy with this election, first because it relieves the pressure on their own countries in the EU, and second because it paves the way for a more united front,” said Yordan Bozhilov, director of the Bulgaria-based Sofia Security Forum think-tank.

READ ALSO: Polish PM hails far-right’s ‘great victory’ in Italian elections

The Italian election follows hard on the heels of a Swedish poll that also produced a surge for the extreme right.

But with the far right in power in one of the EU’s largest countries and founding members, Hungary and Poland could be far less isolated in their battles with Brussels over rule-of-law issues.

What’s more, Rome, Budapest and Warsaw are now set for alignment on social concerns, with anti-Islam, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT positions.

“Together we will defeat the cynical and pampered Eurocrats who are destroying the European Union, breaching treaties, destroying our civilisation and advancing the LGBT agenda!” Poland’s deputy agriculture minister Janusz Kowalski tweeted in a message congratulating Meloni on Monday.

Meloni also shares her prospective allies’ vision of a Christian, white Europe made up of sovereign nations.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind election success for Italy’s far right?

“Hungary and Poland are countries that want to change the EU from within, and they don’t hide it. So far they haven’t succeeded, but there will definitely be an attempt to create a Rome-Budapest-Warsaw axis,” said Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But such parties’ demands have already moderated in recent years from full exit from the EU, “given the absolute cautionary tale that Brexit has been,” she added.

Instead, the axis could become “spoilers, the sand in the gears” in Brussels.

“One step forward, two steps back, they could prevent the EU making progress while continuing to benefit from joint funds,” Varma said.

– Splits over Russia –

 A front based on values could still founder when faced with today’s overriding concern of the war in Ukraine and EU relations with Russia.

While Meloni has so far matched Warsaw in declarations of support for Ukraine and for EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of its neighbour, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban – close to President Vladimir Putin – is
opposed.

“At some point, Meloni will have to choose between Poland and Hungary,” Varma predicted.

The Brothers of Italy leader is not expected to bend her position to match those of her junior coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are friendlier to Moscow.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

“Regarding foreign policy, as far as we know Meloni backs the sanctions against Russia and Brothers of Italy is closer to Poland’s PiS (governing party) than Hungary’s Fidesz,” said Hungarian analyst Patrik Szicherle.

Meloni has “sent the right messages on Ukraine,” said Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund, pointing out Italy’s critical relationship with the US as a reliable NATO ally.

Once elected prime minister, she “has every incentive to have good relations with Brussels, not to enter a pitched battle,” said Paolo Modugno, professor of Italian civilisation at Paris’ Sciences Po university.

Meloni “is very aware of the Italian public’s problems, their fear of inflation and the economic situation. What’s urgent for her is to manage the crisis, not to take ideological risks,” he added.

Analysts suggest that the incoming government’s choice of top ministers, especially in the finance and foreign ministries, will clearly signal how Meloni plans to position herself in Europe.

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