As Matteo Salvini stepped out of his ministerial car and was whisked by security guards into a theatre in the southern Italian town of Foggia, the cheering crowd and camera flashes were more reminiscent of a film premiere than a political rally.
Inside, the audience chanted "Matteo, Matteo" as the deputy prime minister delivered a stump speech that ranged from the battle against immigration – "We have halved the number of migrants in Puglia!" – to jokes about Brussels' regulation – "Can I go to the bathroom? I'll need to get permission from the European Union. "
An hour later, he sped off to Basilicata – like Puglia, another southern Italian region where support for his League party just a few years ago was next to nonexistent. Since the start of the year Salvini has made more than 180 similar public appearances at rallies across Italy – a prodigious rate of more than one a day that has left domestic political opponents for dust.
Much attention has focused on how Salvini has used social media to rebrand the League from a one-time Northern separatist group into a pan-Italian nationalist party. But a more old-fashioned tactic has contributed greatly to his success: a gruelling schedule of rallies staged up and down the country.
"This is a key but underrated part of his political strategy, he is very present on the ground," said Lorenzo Pregliasco, a polling expert and co-author of The Salvini Phenomenon, a study of Salvini's political communication style. "In the villages and small towns of Italy there is an element of curiosity about having a celebrity come to visit. They may not all be Salvini voters but they want to come out and see him."
The large gains Salvini’s party has made in southern regions such as Puglia and Basilicata could see the League become Italy’s largest single party in European elections this weekend. Polls forecast the party taking more than 30 per cent of the vote.
This is up from the 4 per cent taken by the then Northern League in general elections in 2013 before Salvini took control of the party. That year it took just 0.07 per cent of the vote in Puglia. In general elections last year, the rebranded League expanded its share in the region to 6.2 per cent.
If the League makes the gains it hopes for in Italy's south then the party will have broken the grip that ageing magnate Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia has held over the country's political right for more than two decades.
It will also allow Salvini to establish a beachhead in parts of the country that until now have been the natural base of his rivals the Five Star Movement, which itself has capitalised on anger at high unemployment and political corruption in the mezzogiorno.
Such results would once have been inconceivable for a party that for much of its near 30-year history called for self-determination for “Padania” – the name it used for northern Italy – and whose activists sang lewd songs about how Neapolitans “stank”.
After taking charge in late 2013, Salvini, a League activist since his teens, radically altered its strategy, dropping the “Northern” from the party’s name and focusing instead on the migrant crisis.
“The relative gains the League has made since 2013 have not been in its traditional strongholds of the north, but in central and southern Italy,” said Pregliasco. “When he took over the party he abandoned all the anti-south rhetoric. He switched focus from an internal enemy, southern Italy, to an external enemy, migrants.”
Salvini's willingness to hit the road, his advisers said, has been part of a strategy to build support across Italy. Rallies have been broadcast on Facebook Live and his near nightly television appearances have been live tweeted. "It is a strategy of permanent campaigning," said Daniele Albertazzi, a professor of political science at the UK's University of Birmingham.
In rare public comments last year, Luca Morisi, Salvini's social media guru and political strategist, explained what he called the "virtuous circle" of TV-Rete-Territorio fisico (Television-Social Networks-Territory).
By focusing on public appearances by Salvini, both at rallies and via TV and social media, the League has used what Morisi sees as the party’s biggest asset – Salvini’s charisma and communication skills. “Salvini didn’t need to be educated about this, he was completely spontaneous because he has a great communicative empathy. Anyone who has met him in real life, even for a few seconds, knows this,” he said.
Selfie con Metteo
The “selfie con Matteo” has become a defining characteristic of a Salvini rally, with his campaign team creating a light-hearted game show-style competition for supporters who have the most liked and retweeted Salvini-related social media posts. Soon after finishing his stump speech in the theatre in Foggia, Salvini barked instructions to organise people for selfies.
This handshaking and selfie strategy is not without its risks. One woman at an event in Salerno, south of Naples, posed for a selfie, before saying "Hey Salvini, so are we not 'shitty southerners' any more?". Salvini angrily called for the filming to stop and his bodyguards seized her phone.
But so far it appears enough voters in regions such as Puglia are convinced that the League’s once vitriolic rhetoric against southern Italians is a thing of the past.
The audience may be changing but the tactics, some say, hark back to an earlier era. Umberto Bossi, founder of the Lega Nord, was a strong advocate of face-to-face campaigning. "It was a requirement for activists to show up on a Saturday, man the stalls, and stop people walking into supermarkets in the north of Italy and talk to them about the party," said Albertazzi.
“To that extent what Salvini is doing – the shaking of hands, the taking of selfies – is simply old-style Leghista.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019