It was a matter of time, but it had to happen, although we still don't know how it will end. Matteo Salvini, leader of Lega and at the top of all polls of voting intentions since September 2018, has decided to stand up to the reform of the tax system that the President of the Council of Ministers, Mario Draghi, intends to carry out. In reality, this reform of the tax system, about which very little is yet known, but which is one of Draghi's commitments to obtain funds from the European Union, is nothing more than an excuse for Salvini to get out of the ever-increasing quagmire in which he has been stuck for months. And that quagmire has a name of its own: the Roman Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy and at the moment the person who has come to head the voting intentions for a future general election, even if it is still by a very small margin with respect to Salvini's Lega.
Salvini reached his peak of popularity in the European elections of May 2019: more than 34% of Italians decided to vote for him. In reality, all of this confirmed what had been happening for almost a year before: that his aggressive policy of ports closed to irregular immigration (initiated in June 2018, when he became deputy prime minister and head of the Interior) gave him widespread popularity among a population that had been seeing between 150,000 and 200,000 immigrants arrive on Italian soil every year since 2013, who were then not distributed among the member countries of the European Union. Salvini, then, decided to confront the EU authorities and decided that not a single boat would dock in his country, which earned him 70% popularity. All this, added to the very evident ineptitude of the leaders of the Five Star Movement to govern (Toninelli and the Ponte Morandi, Bonafede and the massive release of mafiosi with very serious blood crimes, Di Maio and his inability to fulfil what he promised in the controversial "citizenship income"), led Salvini, in the various elections to the government of the region (Sardinia, Abruzzo, Basilicata, etc.) to go from victory to victory, crushing his coalition partners.
It was precisely this reality that led him to bring down, in the first week of August 2019, the government of which he was a member so that President Mattarella would have no choice but to call early elections given the fact that in principle there was no alternative majority. But the response of Matteo Renzi, former prime minister and defenestrated secretary general of the Democratic Party (PD), showing his willingness to make a pact with the party that had most denigrated him (which was none other than Five Star), ended with a new government (the second of the legislature) that went from "giallo-verde" (Five Star-Lega) to "giallo-rosso" (Five Star-PD), and which would last from September 2019 to February 2021.
Despite this, Salvini's popularity hardly suffered. In addition to winning a new region (Umbria) in October 2019 and being on the verge of a surprise victory in Emilia-Romagna (January 2020), he was still by far the most popular politician in the country and the undisputed leader of the centre-right party.
But already in the second half of 2020 everything began to go wrong for Salvini. The "lockdown" imposed by the coronavirus epidemic prevented him from engaging in the populist politics he is so good at: direct contact with voters, going from "paesino" to "paesino" to give free rein to his populism and also to his famous ultra-nationalism. However, the elections to the governments of seven regions made it clear that Salvini had entered a different dynamic: he won Valle d'Aosta, Liguria, Veneto and Marche, but lost to the centre-left in Tuscany, Campania and Puglia. Even so, he could be moderately reassured, because Five Star was only continuing the decomposition that had begun almost from the beginning of the legislature and the PD, in turn, was still failing to improve the figures that had led Matteo Renzi to leave the party's General Secretariat and form his own party (Italia Viva).
The problem for Salvini was not really in the centre-left coalition (where Renzi was already going to break with it and bring down the coalition government, as he finally did in the first week of February 2021), but in his own coalition, because, completely unexpectedly, the Roman Meloni was beginning to step on his heels, and in what a way. Although the latter's formation (Brothers of Italy) has been a small party for years, and Salvini is currently three times Meloni's number of MPs, the reality is that Meloni has been gaining ground until she has become his main rival within the centre-right coalition. From the same generation (Salvini was born in 1973 and Meloni in 1977), both have been at the head of their respective parties for the same length of time (eight years, since 2013), and are certainly the politicians with the best future at the moment.
What they have in common, moreover, is that they are the only ones who have been calling for early elections for the past year, given the evidence that the population wants a centre-right coalition rather than a centre-left coalition at the head of the Council of Ministers, as shown in poll after poll. But the two began to follow different paths on the occasion of the "fiducia" (trust) to the Draghi government: while Salvini voted in favour, Meloni abstained. This has given Meloni a "free hand" to present herself as the only one who does not follow the current government, and to present motions of confidence when she deems it necessary.
But beyond this difference, and the fact that Meloni is much better supported by the EU institutions (the conservatives chose her a year ago as leader of their group in the European Parliament, as a way of weakening Salvini and strengthening Roman politics, which has never disavowed European integration, unlike Salvini), the big problem for the Lega leader is that the Draghi government has left him without a discourse.
Salvini had built his popularity on the war against irregular immigration and on anti-Europeanism (both intimately intertwined issues), and now, with a government whose visible head (Mario Draghi) is achieving a historic recovery for the Italian economy (all forecasts indicate that in a single year it will recover almost all the GDP lost in 2020), and which has led him to receive 60% support among the population, something simply unthinkable in a government presided over and led by independents, Salvini is beginning to move into the background, out of the spotlight.
Irregular immigration is no longer a problem: not even 50,000 people arrive each year. The European Union, in turn, does nothing but pour money into the European economies, particularly Italy and Spain. And the rest of the major parties (including the Five Star Movement!) are wholeheartedly supporting a Draghi who is increasingly dwarfing the figure of Salvini, until then the shining star of the national political scene.
As a result, Salvini has not only failed to win any of the country's most important cities in these elections (Sala, of the PD, won in the capital of Lombardy, while Gualteri, also of the PD, is almost certain to win in the second round or "ballottaggio" in Rome; and Manfredi, like Sala, also won by a landslide in Naples); but in many localities Meloni's party has also received more votes than Salvini's, something that was simply unthinkable a year ago.
Faced with this reality, Salvini knows what he has to do: and, for the moment, he is challenging Prime Minister Draghi. Because, if he stands still, and in the face of the ever-growing chimera of Draghi becoming the next president of the Republic, Salvini has a year and a half ahead of him in which he has to reverse the situation if he wants to return to being the undisputed leader of the centre-right and the man with the best chance of becoming the new prime minister after the elections to be held, foreseeably, in February-March 2023. And where to start? Of course: by breaking the deck in relation to the "maggioranza" and tax reform, even though he doesn't really know what he is opposing the current prime minister on. The stakes are high.
Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021 (Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2021).