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Matteo Salvini could be Western Europe’s first far-right leader since 1945

League leader Matteo Salvini arrives to speak at a rally in Turin on Feb. 28, 2018. (Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

ROME — The Northern League once derided southern Italians as smelly, shifty and indolent. But after a successful national rebranding that put migrants instead of other Italians in its crosshairs, voters may have given its youthful head, Matteo Salvini, a shot at leading the whole country.

In an establishment-smashing season in Italy, Salvini’s party — now renamed “the League” to appeal to the entire country — has driven home its anti-migrant, nationalist message with more success than far-right cousins elsewhere in Europe. After Italians split their vote Sunday between the populist Five Star Movement and the League’s right-wing coalition, Italian President Sergio Mattarella may give Salvini a mandate to build a government.

If that happens, Salvini, a genial 44-year-old everyman who favors faded jeans, T-shirts and anti-Islamic rhetoric, could be Western Europe’s first far-right leader since 1945. He has risen to dominance by abandoning his party’s old regionalism and instead channeling fears of migrants and bureaucrats in Brussels.

He says he wants to close mosques, bolster Italy’s borders and take sovereignty back from the European Union. He praises Russian President Vladimir Putin for promoting traditional family values.

Italy’s election saw support for anti-establishment parties, led by the Five Star Movement, but none of the three main factions will be able to govern alone. (Video: Reuters)

And his earthy humor — critics would say racism and misogyny — has proved to be a vote winner among Italians who are nostalgic for an earlier, less racially diverse era. He once quipped that there should be racially segregated buses and trains in Milan, which opponents said called to mind the American civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Another time, he compared a top female politician to a sex doll.

After a failed League candidate for local office shot six African migrants in a central Italian city last month, Salvini said it was migrants who were bringing violence to Italy.

“We will go to Europe to change the rules that have impoverished Italians,” Salvini said Tuesday in Milan, after meeting with the newly elected governor of the Lombardy region, a League member who during the campaign said that migrants were a threat to the “white race.” (The governor-elect, Attilio Fontana, later called it a “slip of the tongue.”)

Salvini said he was prepared to save Italy from “quicksand.”

His star role comes after years as a junior partner to former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who often barely disguised his disdain for an ally far on his right flank who was young enough to be his son. Europe’s elite, wincing at the anti-establishment fervor in the Italian campaign, had counted on the pro-E.U. Berlusconi to bind his far-right allies to more-moderate positions. 

Instead, Salvini has broken free, with his party beating Berlusconi’s Forza Italia with 17.4 percent of the vote to Forza Italia’s 14 percent — and more than quadrupling its tally from elections five years ago.

The result positions him as the right-wing heir to Berlusconi, 81, who never cultivated a younger generation of leaders in his own party. With Berlusconi’s long political career most likely over after the failure at the polls, the shake-up of Italy’s right wing could rival the populist transformation of the Republican Party under President Trump.

The parallels are similar enough that former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon went to Rome to watch the elections, praising Salvini to local journalists for his ability to channel Italian passions in a populist direction.

“Salvini could really invent or build a new right-wing coalition,” said Paolo Natale, a professor of political science at the University of Milan.

The new lead role for the League takes it far beyond its regional roots as a northern group that wanted to split the country’s rich industrial territories from the agricultural south. After Salvini took over four years ago, he shifted the focus away from separatism and amped up the nationalist, Italy-first message. He borrowed from the old pro-worker, left-wing playbook, saying he wanted to boost pensions and lower the retirement age — and pay for it by spending less on the more than 600,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy since 2013.

“The problem with Islam is that it’s a law, not a religion, and it’s incompatible with our values, our rights and our freedoms,” Salvini said last month while campaigning in Umbria, where local allies were trying to prevent the construction of an Islamic cultural center.

The promises worked: All across the former heartland of the center-left Democratic Party, the League was the top vote-getter Sunday. And League candidates were even elected from Sicily and elsewhere in the south, a previously unthinkable development.

League leaders say that establishment politicians on the continent have failed to listen to the anxieties of their voters.

“It’s a battle raging across national and regional borders,” said Lorenzo Fontana, one of Salvini’s top deputies.

“Citizens have been sending important signals to all of Europe,” he said. “If we want to make it so that the situation doesn’t get any worse, we need to understand how to get those signals.”

But even as Italians delivered a clear rejection of their country’s traditional parties, no other force gained enough support to govern outright, leading to a chaotic outcome that could take months to resolve. The most natural alliance may be between the League and the Five Star Movement, since they share a coolness toward globalization and want to bolster Italy’s safety net. Political analysts think a League-Five Star coalition is unlikely because Five Star leaders would struggle to persuade their largely left-wing voters to support it. But neither side is ruling out a union.

“As far as I’m concerned, we clearly need to speak to them,” Fontana said, adding that Five Star leaders had previously rejected attempts at dialogue. “Let’s hope they’ll finally be in favor of talking so as to see whether there are points in common that we can work on for the good of Italy.”

Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio said Monday that he was ready to speak to every political force in the country.

Analysts say that if Salvini becomes prime minister, his coalition partners and practicality probably would force him to be more moderate. Human rights issues aside, an effort to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants is unlikely to succeed, because other countries would have to agree to take them in. And other European leaders who tried to challenge the continent’s economic mainstream walked into a buzz saw of financial crisis, then backed down.

Still, the possibility of Salvini as prime minister has mainstream opponents fearful.

“He’s closed to the world, afraid of globalization, Europe, migrants. He’d take this country 50 years back into the past,” said Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, whom Salvini once compared to an inflatable sex doll. 

“He compared me to a sex doll,” she said. “Is a person like this suitable to represent Italy?”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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