Why Matteo Salvini Wouldn’t Mind Being Prosecuted

By Jason Horowitz

The Italian nationalist is facing a potential trial on accusations of abduction for blocking rescued migrants when he was interior minister. And he can’t believe his luck.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s nationalist leader, has seized on the case against him as a potential life raft after his party’s defeat in a regional election.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s nationalist leader, has seized on the case against him as a potential life raft after his party’s defeat in a regional election.Credit...Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
Jason Horowitz

ROME — Matteo Salvini can hardly believe his good fortune. He’s facing prosecution.

In another country, that might spell trouble for a politician like Mr. Salvini, Italy’s nationalist leader. But Mr. Salvini is being pursued for turning away rescued migrants when he was interior minister, by southern prosecutors who have called it an abuse of power and an act of abduction.

As the effort to criminally pursue Mr. Salvini comes to a critical juncture, just weeks after a defeat in an important regional election thwarted his attempted return to power, he has seized upon it as a political life raft.

“Immigration is surely not a theme that scares me,” said Mr. Salvini in an interview in his Senate office, surrounded by the law enforcement shirts he often dressed up in, dozens of cross necklaces dangling in a row like Mardi Gras beads and assorted gifts that he receives on the campaign trail.

It’s not hard to see why. The potential prosecution has unwittingly revived migration as an issue despite only a trickle of arrivals to Italy.

And it has rearmed Mr. Salvini, an expert in political victimization, with a powerful issue to rally his base. Next week he will convene a news conference with the foreign media, hoping to elevate his international profile as a Trump-like target of political persecution.

“I see the similarities of a left that tries to win through legal means that which it can’t win through democratic means,” Mr. Salvini said in the interview, on the day of Mr. Trump’s acquittal in a Senate trial.

He added that prosecutions “against Trump will end in nothing and they will end in nothing for me.”

Rather than run from the case, Mr. Salvini can hardly stop talking about it, in his daily Facebook Live soliloquies, campaign trail appearances and interviews. He spoke with amazement about a schedule of votes this month and the next to determine whether or not he could be prosecuted for the signature issue that fueled his rise to become the most popular politician in Italy.

“Here,” he said, “every month there is a request to prosecute on immigration that they send forward.”

They, as Mr. Salvini sees it, are ideologically motivated magistrates spurred on by liberal enemies determined to stop his rise in Italian politics.

Mr. Salvini’s critics see a more straightforward case of his breaking the law, not to mention disregarding the dire human suffering of those on board the ships he left floating at sea, and of a judicial system doing its job to hold him accountable. They are doubtful that Mr. Salvini will actually vote for the case to go ahead in another legislative step on Feb. 12. His office says it is still evaluating what to do.

Either way, Mr. Salvini, despite his complaint about having to eat breakfast with his lawyer rather than his girlfriend, is now relishing the opportunity.

In the politics of persecution, Mr. Salvini has few peers, having picked up where Silvio Berlusconi left off. The media magnate and former conservative prime minister spent decades excoriating Italy’s prosecutors as the country’s Communist opposition — to great political fortune.

Mr. Salvini has replaced Mr. Berlusconi as the de facto leader of the Italian right, though he has sat on the sidelines since his coalition government collapsed last summer.

Before then, in one of his last official acts, Mr. Salvini prevented the Italian Coast Guard ship, the Gregoretti, from bringing rescued migrants to an Italian port for days.

On Dec. 17, a court in the southern city of Catania asked a panel in the Italian Senate to lift Mr. Salvini’s immunity and allow him to be prosecuted for “abducting” the migrants by refusing to let the Gregoretti dock.

On Jan. 31, a Palermo court made a similar request concerning a Spanish aid boat carrying scores of migrants, some of whom Mr. Salvini kept adrift for weeks, in violation of a court order allowing them to enter Italian waters.

But even Mr. Salvini’s political opponents have sensed the danger of turning him into a martyr on the migration issue. They have wavered on whether to let the prosecutions proceed, suggested they be delayed until after regional elections and ultimately abstained in critical votes.

There has, however, been one surprise advocate for allowing the prosecutions to go forward: Mr. Salvini himself.

“They will put on trial the entire Italian people,” he took to saying on the campaign trail, often to sustained applause.

Mr. Salvini and his nationalist allies understand how much the issue of migration still resonates with European voters. On Tuesday, Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, appeared at a conference of international conservatives in a Rome hotel and said the importance of the 2015 migration crisis was that it had lifted the taboo of speaking about identity and national borders.

Mr. Orban urged his allies to “use the chance” the immigration issue provided them. He also seemed to take a subtle dig at Mr. Salvini when he asked the crowd how one could help one’s nation “if you are not skillful enough to keep the power.”

Guests at the conference said they were disappointed that Mr. Salvini, who was expected to appear, didn’t show. Mr. Salvini’s office said he never confirmed and there was a scheduling conflict.

Since Mr. Salvini’s failed bid to trigger early elections by pulling the plug on his coalition with the Five Star Movement last year, staying at the center of things has become more of a challenge.

That problem has intensified since his candidate’s loss in the regional elections in January in Emilia Romagna, a traditional left-wing stronghold where Mr. Salvini spent weeks campaigning to demonstrate his dominance of Italian politics and his appeal in formerly enemy territory. He lost badly.

In an effort to find his footing, he has focused on more regional elections this year to apply pressure on Italy’s fragile government, an awkward alliance of his former, and cratering, Five Star partners and the center-left Democratic Party.

But the man who just weeks ago was in such a hurry to collapse the government now seemed resigned to the fact that he had to play a long game. The next elections are not scheduled until 2023.

When discussing his potential comeback, Mr. Salvini exclaimed, “There’s no rush!”

In the meantime, Italian political analysts have argued that Mr. Salvini needed to move more toward the center to expand his support beyond 33 percent. There were some indications that Mr. Salvini wanted to shed his hard-right image.

In the interview, Mr. Salvini said that it was “probably a reductive vision” to lump him in with other nationalists like Mr. Orban and Marine Le Pen in France based solely on their shared opposition to migration.

His League party, formerly the Northern League, he pointed out, ran many of Italy’s regions, including one of its richest and most successful, Lombardy.

It had also, he failed to note, once advocated breaking Lombardy and the rest of the north away from Italy in a fictional nation called Padania. But now, Mr. Salvini said, the League was a truly national party and it had become clear that “Lombardy alone goes nowhere.”

Even so, Mr. Salvini argued that he was in no way distancing himself from the hard-right nationalist milieu in which he emerged as a global leader. Despite failing to appear at the conservative conference, he met privately with Mr. Orban and “brainstormed about scenarios of future collaboration.”

His hard line on immigration — prosecution or not — was a winning one, and one from which he wouldn’t budge.

“I don’t move,” he said, as he sat at his desk, waiting for the bell signaling the next Senate vote to ring.