Matteo Salvini is the most shameless and unscrupulous politician Italy has produced in recent decades. He beats Silvio Berlusconi, for whom decency and restraint were also foreign concepts. Lately, for example, Salvini has taken to holding a rosary in his hands when he launches his xenophobic tirades. In doing so, though, he is at odds with the Vatican because he considers the Pope to be on the political left. Nevertheless, the Lega boss believes that a bit of pseudo-religious civility could decorate and paper over his nationalism.
What he hasn't been able to hide, however, is the paunch he has been parading around on every beach in Italy in front of every smartphone camera he can find. It's a proletarian gut, he told his critics, as if he ever had anything to do with the working class. The only thing he shares with them is his love of wine and pasta, and he seems to know his compatriots' taste — men see him as a cheerful macho, women see him as a great seducer. A shot of vulgarity has never hurt in Italy.
This spectacle is precisely calculated, and, if polls are any indication, the Lega leader, along with the help of the far-right Brothers of Italy, could sweep to power in new elections. If that happens, then Salvini — an ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin — will push Italian politics so far to the right that Brussels will soon have to worry about the rule of law, not just in Hungary or Poland, but also in one of Europe's founding democracies.
M5S sells its soulThe prize for being the biggest imbeciles surely goes to the 5-Star Movement. In just a little over a year, the party has managed to hemorrhage around half of its voters to Salvini — blissfully aware of the outcome. Instead of putting the hatemonger in his place, they backed his policies and alienated their leftist voter base. They sold what little there was left of their soul and political integrity for the sake of being in power.
M5S became the stepping stone for Salvini's power-hungry quest. The party lacked ideas, personnel and strength to counter Salvini's cynicism and cunning. By all standards — not particularly high to begin within Italian politics — theirs was an abject performance. In a way, they've got what they deserved — if it weren't for the fact that their weakness could propel a politician to the top who openly flirts with fascism.
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M5S and the center-left Democratic Party (PD) could save themselves, their reputations and the country by agreeing on a new coalition instead of focusing their efforts on a new election. For now, they would still command a majority. However, it appears that the 5-Star Movement hates the PD more than the right-wing populists, which is both ideologically and politically inexplicable and absurd. The PD, on the other hand, needs someone who can heal the party's divisiveness and offer an alternative beyond party lines.
A disaster for Italy and EuropeSalvini knows how to play on the emotions of his fellow Italians and has convinced them that they are not responsible for the country's inability to reform and its mountain of debt. And voters are only too eager to believe in conspiracy theories and that they are being controlled by a foreign power. And if that doesn't work, Salvini can always blame the country's ills on the migrants.
Salvini wants to take Italy out of the European, democratic community and into international isolation by whipping up voters in a pseudo battle against Brussels and its insistence on budget discipline. The inherent risk is that Italy's debt could not simply rock the euro but that a sovereign default could topple the common currency.
Read more: Debt and doom loops: The eurozone's Italian nightmare
Ultimately, it hinges on whether the costs of financing Italy's debt could persuade Salvini to come to his political and fiscal senses. On the other hand, he may very well have already factored in the euro's collapse. For the European Union, the crisis in Italy is yet another tinderbox in a long list of conundrums.