Notes from the Old Country: Salvini's Surge

During my vacation in Italy these past few weeks, I managed to stay off Twitter and email, I swear. But I wasn’t above giving an occhiata to the local dailies. What jumped out at me most is the astounding political success of Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightwing Lega (“League”) party which currently governs in coalition with the leftish, anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) in what has been called Western Europe’s first “all populist” government. A few observations and a thought..


 

First, of course, Matteo Salvini is not actually the prime minister. Nor is he head of the largest party in parliament (this distinction falls to labor and economic development minister Luigi DiMaio, who heads M5S). But a casual visitor would hardly know it. Salvini, is a ferociously nationalistic, anti-immigrant firebrand who, as interior minister, now runs the show on the ultra-divisive issue of migrant policy. He acts and is covered as though he were in fact “Salvini Premier” (a campaign slogan he still uses in public and on social media.) Simply put, Italian politics revolves largely around him.

His direct language and shrewd use of social media only enhance his public profile, whether the coverage is good or bad. (While I was there he elicited huge outcry by a) quoting Mussolini and b) being portrayed as Satan by a Catholic magazine. All in a week’s work for Salvini.)

Second, Salvini’s limelight role in Italian politics is helping his party immensely. Lega won 17 percent of the vote in March, but since then its support hassurged to more than 30 percent, placing it roughly on equal footing now with M5S. Lega’s growth has come largely at the expense of the exhausted center-right Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi – mirroring the success of other European right-wingers at weakening center-right establishment parties. But Lega’s surge speaks to the larger success that Salvini has had in transforming his party since he took charge in 2013.

The Lega Nord (“Northern League”, as it was then known) was once a regional quasi-secessionist party that looked down on Southerners and considered the tax-taking central government in Rome as its main enemy. But Salvini has rebranded it as a fiercely nationalistic party that looks down on immigrants and sees the EU (particularly its policies on migrants and budget deficits) as its main enemy.  That shift has helped the party to put down deeper roots even in the South, whose people Salvini once openly derided (and in song, at that.)

Coupled with strong support from Northern industrialists and small town middle class folks who like its long-standing anti-tax message, Salvini is building a supple and potentially dominant coalition, with a well-organized party machine that the M5S folks, still newer to the scene, can only dream of.

The big question as Salvini’s personal and party clout grows is whether the somewhat unnatural alliance between Lega and the M5S will turn into a more open rivalry and, in turn, what that might mean for Italy’s economy and its relationship with the EU.

One smaller bonus question that may interest you is: what was Salvini thinking when he did this semi-nude centerfold piece for the Italian magazine Oggi in 2014? (Hat tip to my pal Fede Santi at Eurasia Group for this gem.)

Every day thousands of people legally cross back and forth between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on their way to jobs, schools, doctor's appointments, shopping centers and the homes of family and friends. This harmonious exchange has taken place for more than 400 years, uniting neighbors through shared social ties, geography, history and, most importantly, an interlinked economy.

Beyond the people and goods, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez also converge in a cross-border flow of ideas, ambition and aspirations that have shaped the region for centuries. This forward-looking spirit is what attracted Microsoft to the region in 2017, when it launched Microsoft TechSpark to create new economic opportunities and help digitally transform established industries with modern software and cloud services. It's also why Microsoft announced on Monday that it is expanding the TechSpark El Paso program to include Ciudad Juárez and making a $1.5 million investment in the binational Bridge Accelerator. Read more about the TechSpark announcement here.

Since Syria's brutal civil war began eight years ago, millions of Syrians have fled their country to escape the bombs and bullets. But hundreds of thousands have been displaced within Syria's borders, where they languish in packed refugee camps. The al-Hol camp in northern Syria is sprawling, and of its nearly 70,000 residents, some 11,000 are family members of foreign ISIS fighters, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The surprise American withdrawal from northern Syria last week paved the way for Turkey and Syria's Bashar al-Assad to move in. Some 160,000 civilians have now fled the border region that Turkey is bombarding, deepening a humanitarian crisis in a stretch of Syria that had been relatively secure since the defeat of ISIS's self-declared caliphate back in March. Here's a look at the camps for displaced people in the area.

Syria is quickly turning into US President Donald Trump's most significant foreign policy blunder to date. It's looking like it might be for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, too.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced a fresh wave of sanctions on Turkey, in a bid to get Erdogan to halt his invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. Yes, you may recall, that's the same invasion that the US green-lit last week by withdrawing American troops from the area.

More Show less

Mozambique's democracy test Mozambicans voted yesterday in an election that will test a fragile peace accord between the ruling Frelimo party, led by president Filipe Nyusi, and Renamo, a former rebel group-turned-opposition party. The two factions were on opposite sides of a Cold War-tinged civil war that killed an estimated 1 million people between 1977 and 1992. Frelimo, which has ruled Mozambique since independence, has been losing popularity due to a corruption scandal, but is likely to hold onto power at the national level. Renamo, which foreswore violence just two months ago in exchange for electoral reforms that will help the party, will be hoping to make regional gains that allow it to win some key governorships. Disputes over the final vote count and even outright fraud or violence are possible in coming days, particularly if Renamo fails to make its hoped-for gains.

More Show less

What's the update at the Syria-Turkey border?

Well, it is increasingly in the hands of Assad and the Russians, who the Kurds have flipped with. The United States withdrawing some troops away from the border, the Turks coming in, but they going to be limited in how much they can do given the fact that ultimately, Assad and Russia has most the firepower and Turkey does not want that fight.

More Show less