Salvini: Rebranded nationalist with chance to be Italian PM
With his "Italians first" rallying cry and his tub-thumping against Islam and a "migrant invasion", Matteo Salvini has rebranded himself and his party, leading a far-right surge in Italy's election.
The 44-year-old Salvini's League party was ahead of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) party within the main right-wing alliance which looked set to win the most votes on Sunday, according to early results.
If the victory is confirmed, the outcome would give Salvini a chance to be nominated prime minister.
The election marks the end of a long period of transformation in which Salvini changed the once secessionist Northern League by removing the location from the party's name and promoting a nationalist message.
His campaign focused on railing against the euro, Brussels and the more than 690,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy since 2013.
On a campaign stop in Matera in southern Italy, Salvini promised "order, rules, cleanliness" and complained that "immigration is out of control".
"I'm very happy to bring our battle for security, identity and autonomy to 60 million Italians and not anymore just a part of the country," he said.
Salvini opposes same-sex unions and has said he wants to deport foreign criminals and shut down Roma camps.
Born and raised in Milan in 1973, Salvini joined the then-Northern League in 1990, aged just 17, and rose through the ranks of a party that since its inception had insulted poorer southern Italians as "lazy", and "parasites" draining wealth from the "hard-working" north.
"The tricolore (Italian flag) doesn't represent me," Salvini said in 2014. "At home I've only got the flag of Lombardy and Milan.
Back in 2009 he suggested that the Milan metro should have reserved seats for Milanese.
"Within 10 years we're going to be a minority so we'll have to reserve seats on the metro like we used to with the disabled and war-wounded," he said.
- Online power -
Salvini bangs on his anti-immigrant drum to his 640,000 followers on Twitter and more than two million fans on Facebook, where every day he publishes posts, live videos and photos of his meetings -- what he gets up to and even what he eats.
While he also likes to show his pride in his two children, 14-year-old Federico and Mirta, five, he is less happy to discuss his complicated love life.
Currently living with glamorous model and TV presenter Elisa Isoardi, his children come from past relationships with ex-wife Fabrizia Ieluzzi, a political journalist, and his previous girlfriend Giulia Martinelli.
- Anti-EU alliances -
Salvini routed party founder Umberto Bossi in party elections in the wake of a 2013 poll disaster, due in part to a 2012 corruption scandal that saw Bossi, his son and former treasurer Francesco Belsito convicted of misappropriation of party funds.
Salvini immediately forged alliances with anti-EU far-right forces like France's National Front and Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders.
"Some people say 'more Europe', I say 'more Italy!'," Salvini shouted at the one and only campaign event held by the four-party coalition.
In the meantime the party has dropped the anti-southern slurs -- officially at least -- swapping them for rants about what he calls "irregular" migrants and the "danger" of Islam.
Salvini has made conciliatory noises towards the five million foreigners officially residing in Italy, saying they can "consider themselves Italians".
Nonetheless he has continued to keep immigration high on the agenda, aligning himself with other figures on the far-right in blaming "an invasion" for the racist gun rampage carried out in the central city of Macerata last month.
A fascist sympathiser shot and wounded six Africans in revenge for the murder of a young girl, allegedly at the hands of a group of Nigerians.
"It's clear that out-of-control immigration... will bring about social conflict," Salvini said.
"I can't wait to go into government so I can bring back security, social justice and serenity to the whole of Italy."
© 2018 AFP