Pontida, Italy (AP) — Down but not out, Matteo Salvini pledged Sunday to tens of thousands of die-hard backers of his populist League that the party will return to government with even more power than before, and he hit a euro-skeptic note as he warned Italy’s European allies in shaky French, German and English that “the Italian people are no one’s servant.”
“I will never give up,” Salvini told an annual pilgrimage of League voters to a foothill Lombard town with long historical associations to nationalist movements. He was relaunching himself as the head of Italy’s opposition after his grave political miscalculation landed League out of government.
“Those who thought that I would be worn out and need a break, I give my word of honor, I will work even more than before,” Salvini said. “I won’t give up because our country deserves everything.”
This year’s gathering took on additional significance as Salvini whips up his base in opposition to the new 5-Star-Democratic Party government that took office this month after his failed move to force new elections pushed the League out of government and deprived him of his bully pulpit as Italy’s hard-line anti-migrant interior minister.
“I’d rather concede seven ministry posts to traitors now, that we will win back with interest and transparency in a few months,” Salvini told the crowd.
While he muted his often fiery tones, urging supporters to be patient and polite in their political discourse, speakers who took the stage before him spoke of revolution and resistance, and the rank-and-file attacked Italian journalist Gad Lerner, who was flanked by police bodyguards.
League backers remained undaunted by Salvini’s speedy fall from government, waving regional and party flags and chanting “Elections” and “Freedom” during the annual gathering which mixes politics with a festival atmosphere in a meadow in the town of Pontida. It is a place of pilgrimage for the League as the birthplace of a medieval alliance that repelled a foreign emperor.
“I like Salvini because he is the only one that fights the idea of a European Union, which I do not support, because I believe the European bureaucrats do not do Italy any good,” said Luca Carminati, a laborer from nearby Bergamo who said he has seen his boss struggling to keep a small business alive in the face of high taxation and bureaucracy. “Salvini fights that idea. He is trying to give value to the Italian people again.’
A survey published Sunday in the financial daily il Sole 24 Ore shows that despite Salvini’s political missteps, the League remains the strongest party in Italy with the support of 34% of those surveyed, while the new government is viewed unfavorably by 55%. The survey of 1,500 of voting-age Italians by Winpoll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3%.
Any future government with Salvini would likely need the support of other right-wing parties. The Winpoll survey indicated a coalition with the far-right Brothers of Italy would enjoy 43% support, while throwing in former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia would bring it up to a more stable majority of nearly 50%.
But Salvini will have to tame the rhetoric if he wants to re-align the League with center-right Forza Italia. Forza Italia lawmaker Osvaldo Napoli told the news agency ANSA in Rome that “the climate of violence and hatred registered in these hours in Pontida should make all political leaders reflect, not just those on the center-right but also in the current, uncertain and opaque majority in government.”