For four years Matteo Salvini has been the rising force in Italian politics, with his transformation of the League party from a northern separatist outfit into an Italian nationalist movement prompting many to predict his eventual triumphant arrival in Rome as prime minister.
But as Covid-19 rages through Italy, the leader dubbed Il Capitano has struggled to set the agenda as he once did, and the League has slipped in the polls. With Mr Salvini’s star fading, observers say the most dangerous threat to his political fortunes may come not from his many enemies, but from inside his own party.
As Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the global pandemic, struggles to deal with the fallout, two League politicians have captured national attention: Attilio Fontana, regional governor of Lombardy, with Milan at its centre, and Luca Zaia, his counterpart in neighbouring Veneto, the area surrounding Venice.
The two regions were the first in the country to experience widespread outbreaks. But while Mr Fontana has faced criticism for his handling of the crisis, which has seen Lombardy suffer significantly more deaths than any other region in Italy, Mr Zaia has emerged as a political winner.
The “Veneto model” is being studied around the world after a well-co-ordinated programme of testing and tracing was credited for helping the region experience a dramatically lower mortality rate than its neighbours.
There have been 1,500 coronavirus deaths in Veneto, compared to 14,000 in Lombardy, which has double the population. Piedmont, with a smaller population than Veneto, has had twice as many deaths.
A Covid-19 ward in Cremona, Lombardy. The region has suffered one of the highest coronavirus death rates in Italy © Miguel Medina/AFP /Getty /
So high are Mr Zaia’s approval ratings that he has been dubbed “Mr 80 per cent” by some Italian media and Il Doge by others, in a reference to the title of Venice’s leader in its 1,100 years as a city state. He is expected to romp to a third term in regional elections to be held later this year in the wealthy, industrialised region, which accounts for around a tenth of Italian economic output.
Mr Salvini took the League from polling in low single digits when he took over in 2013 to winning 34 per cent of the national vote in last year’s European elections, after tirelessly touring the country pledging to clamp down on illegal immigration.
However, recent polls show support for the League falling since the coronavirus crisis began, down from above 30 per cent to the mid-20s. As the party’s momentum has slowed, some Italian political observers are speculating that Mr Zaia could emerge as an unexpected challenger to Mr Salvini.
Mr Zaia began his career as an 18-year-old, organising parties and club nights in late 1980s Veneto. By the age of 25 he had been elected as a local councillor for the then Northern League, and by 1998 was elected leader of the Treviso municipality. Between 2008 and 2010 he served as agriculture minister in the government of Silvio Berlusconi, before being elected in Veneto in 2010.
A skilled politician, who is less hostile to the EU than Mr Salvini, the Veneto governor is a more natural ally of the League’s core constituency of conservative northern business leaders than his rabble-rousing party leader.
Mr Salvini’s economic credibility has never recovered from his “Basta euro” (“No more euro”) campaign, while his stunts, such as ringing the doorbell of a North African family during a regional campaign in January to accuse their son of being a drug dealer, have unsettled the political establishment.
“The invincibility of Salvini has been broken, and Zaia is a rising star. He is a very astute and popular politician,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University.
“I think it is very possible we will see Zaia use his powerful base in the north-east of Italy to make a national run,” he said. “Salvini’s national strategy, of transforming the Lega Nord into a national league, was never entirely accepted by the party and I am convinced at some point we will see Zaia challenge Salvini for the top job.”
A recent poll commissioned by Mr D’Alimonte for Il Sole 24 Ore asking respondents to rate how Italian politicians had handled the Covid-19 crisis put Mr Zaia top, with 46 per cent endorsing the Veneto leader. Giuseppe Conte, prime minister, won the approval of 35 per cent, while president Sergio Mattarella took 32 per cent. Mr Salvini was in seventh place on 19 per cent.
“A good chunk of the Italian establishment is throwing its weight behind Zaia, he is far more acceptable than Salvini in their eyes,” said Francesco Galietti, head of risk consultancy Policy Sonar.
“If you were to ask a big name of Italian family capitalism who they would like to see as prime minister they might name Zaia alongside [ex-ECB chief] Mario Draghi or [former premier] Enrico Letta. Zaia is also from one of the most Catholic areas of Italy, has strong ties with the clergy and is far more entrenched with the Catholic hierarchy than Salvini.”
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Mr Zaia has played his cards close to his chest when pressed on his national ambitions.
“We are facing a tragic emergency, and to abandon ship now — I just can’t do it,” he told journalists last month. “This is a big challenge and Veneto cannot be left without having solved the problem.”
With Veneto’s regional elections approaching, Mr Zaia will in any case be focused on his home region for now.
“He is a king, but he is still the king of a small kingdom for now,” said Mr Galietti. “For the first time we are seeing nationwide polls showing he is breaking through. But he is not a killer, and he respects Salvini, so I don’t see him stabbing him right now.”