Europe is experiencing the rise of radical right groups that have gained national electoral and political success in European elections. Matteo Salvini, the head of the Italian League, is one of the most important leaders of the new far-right alliance changing the balance of power in the European Parliament.
But it's not just that. By gaining 34 percent of popular support on May 26, the League became the first party in Italy. Salvini is the architect of a new interpretation of politics, the League has to be considered an extraordinary phenomenon in the Italian political spectrum.
In the last five years, the League has dramatically increased its political consensus rising from 4.1 percent in the 2013 general election to 17.4 percent in 2018 and to over 30 percent in the last European vote.
Furthermore, it is the first ever case of a secessionist or regional party that over time has managed to become a national party with a clear supremacist standing at the international level as well. The transformation the League went through took place naturally, without formal debate in the party or any political convention marking the end of the old Northern League.
To some extent, everything is related to Salvini's charisma and his use of social media. The real turning point was the elections on March 4, 2018, and the electoral campaign based on Facebook, Twitter and social media. What changed was the way of communicating and the new dominant personality of Salvini who had presented himself with the slogan the League for Salvini premier.
Instead, the traditional structure of the party – as the oldest contemporary Italian party – has not changed in its territorial structure. For its central organization, sections and number of militants it should be considered a mass party. However, the social cleavage marking its foundation in the '80s no longer exists.
The Northern League was born with a secessionist intention: Separate the north from the south, by proclaiming the independence of the Padania region from the rest of Italy. Umberto Bossi was the founder of the Northern League and was appointed as federal president for life.
Recently, the word Padania disappeared as did other symbols such as the figure of Alberto da Giussano, the San Marco lion and the sun Alps. The League for Salvini premier was the locomotive for enforcing the organizational structure nationwide and touching regions and cities that beforehand had been the main reasons for northern independence.
Starting in 2014, the Northern League presented in the south the electoral list "We are with Salvini," even though in the beginning the result was quite modest. In the same spirit, in the 2018 elections the south granted peculiar support to Salvini as a protest vote against the economic crisis and on the security threat due to the immigrant flow.
Today, about 15-20 percent of the League's support comes from the south where the party has opened several branches and started recruiting members.
Moreover, traditional political rhetoric has been replaced by new topics and issues: Independence of the Po Valley became a fight for sovereignty and the war against the southerners has become a battle against immigrants.
As his popularity in the south peaked and political transformation was ac
complished, Salvini was elected senator in Calabria, which was impossible for the Northern League up until a few years ago.
Actually, these are all signs of the political identity crisis Italy is passing through. Along with the decline of the center-left Democrat Party (PD) and of Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Fİ), without considering the poor organizational performance of the M5s, many sectors have oriented their preference toward the League as the only party able to address critical issues thanks to the extreme stance of its leader.
In other words, what has been occurring is the personalization of a political movement: Salvini has mastered the break with the old League, branding a new product identified with himself. Today, the League and Salvini are the same thing, a sort of political binomial hard to rescind. As in other cases of charismatic leadership, the League became its leader.
Salvini is the spokesperson of every dossier; he handles every issue, comments and takes action. Other party members live in a shadow that does not leave room for any other voice. The League has increasingly become a hierarchical, vertical party with just one ordinary man with populist rhetoric.
As in many other times in history, it has become a one-man party with a national profile that is reaching its peak in the national scenario. Although, the "Salvinfication" of the League seems to be a mission accomplished and the leader enjoys broad consensus, the fate of the party will depend on the power of its leader: If the front man fails, the party may implode as happened with Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia.
As they are perfectly synonymous and perfectly interdependent, the failure of the man will result in the sinking of the whole party. History teaches us that personification and absolute leadership are factors that do not last forever.
* Assistant professor at the University of the Turkish Aeronautical Association, Ankara