Salvini Loses His First Battle Of The Message

Ever since Matteo Salvini became leader of The League (Lega) in 2013, he has been simply masterful. In just five years, he took a party given up for dead and made it the first political party in Italy. He transformed Lega from a regional secessionist movement into one of the main nationalist parties in Europe. At every turn, Salvini has proven his critics wrong. When he became Minister of the Interior (Italy’s equivalent of Secretary of Homeland Security), the “experts” confidently declared that he would not be able to stop the flow of migrants as promised during the campaign. In a few weeks, he turned the migrant wave from Africa into a trickle. As Il Capitano (Salvini’s nickname The Captain) scored victory after victory, an aura of invincibility surrounded him and his political enemies began to despair. Even his harshest critics, praised Salvini’s communication skills. His uncanny ability to distill complex matters into simple, easily digestible and memorable lines - that is until this month.

On August 8, Salvini informed his coalition partner, Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), that he intended to bring to an end to the government and seek new elections. His stated reason for “staccare la spina” (pulling the plug) was that what began as “Il governo del cambiamento” (The government of change) had become “Il governo del no” (the government of no) and Italy needs a government of yeses. For the first time since his rise in national politics, Salvini’s messaging fell flat. His supporters were left scratching their heads wondering what happened. Up until the announcement Salvini had repeatedly stated that his partnership with M5S was working well and it would last the full legislative term.

Sensing an opening, Salvini’s opponents pounced and accused him of a power grab. His coalition partners labeled him a traitor putting his own personal ambitions above the needs of the country. Salvini found himself in the unusual position of losing the messaging war. As the prospect of elections dimmed, Il Capitano started to backtrack and made overtures to his former allies to mend fences. Salvini’s missteps resulted in Lega dropping dropping anywhere from seven to five points in recent polls.

It was a statement by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, that began to shed light on what Salvini meant by “nos”. At the G-7 Summit, Tusk praised outgoing Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as “loyal” and “responsible” – code words for pro-European Union. Tusk’s kind words where followed by more praise and lots of smiles for Conte by Merkel, Macron and other European leaders. The self-described Avvocato del Popolo (The people’s advocate) had been the EU’s mole in the government all along.

Slowly a pictured emerged showing that the first populist government in Italy was not all that populist after all. It was made up of three factions: 1) Europhile Conte backed by Italian president Sergio Mattarella; 2)  Eurosceptic Salvini; and 3) wavering Deputy Prime Minister Luigi DiMaio. What eventually led to the breakup was DiMaio deciding to tip the balance in favor of Conte.

Salvini’s reasons for pulling the plug on the government are perfectly valid and defensible. He built his party’s success on challenging the EU and promising to put Italy first. However, he needed to lay the groundwork for his decision. Instead of repeatedly asserting that the partnership with DiMaio was going well and it would last the full five year legislative term, he should have been more guarded in his praise for his government allies. Let the voters know that there were mounting problems.

At the very least Salvini needed to fully explain what led him to present a motion of no confidence in Parliament. He needed to go through the timeline starting with Giovanni Tria, Minister of the Economy and Finance, stating in an interview that the upcoming budget proposal would abide by the deficit parameters set by the EU. Claudio Borghi, one of Salvini’s top economic spokesmen, reacted to Tria’s interview by attacking him hoping that M5S would take his side. Instead, DiMaio defended Tria by saying he had full confidence in him. The events that led to the current political crisis simply cannot be distilled down to a choice been “Yes” vs. “No” as Salvini tried to do. Some situations require more than slogans.