Over a span of 14 months in government, Matteo Salvini has remade Italian politics in his image. He’s passed anti-migrant laws, jabbed opportunistically at European Union rules, and prevailed time and time again in policy struggles with his coalition partner.
Officially, he is Italy‘s interior minister. Unofficially, he has become the nationalist and nativist face of the country.
But now, Mr Salvini is making a play for more power, while pushing to upend the populist two-party coalition he dominates.
His goal: to provoke a crisis, force new elections in the fall, and become prime minister – steps that would leave no doubt about Italy’s ascendant nationalist identity.
This past week, during the middle of a tour of beach towns where he sipped cocktails and DJ’d, Mr Salvini announced that he had lost faith in the coalition, a mash-up of his far-right League and the more politically amorphous Five Star Movement.
On Friday, Mr Salvini’s League took another step towards pushing the Italian government to collapse, calling for a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose job has often consisted of arbitrating squabbles between the two parties.
Mr Salvini’s summer gambit still could backfire. Provided the League sticks with its plan, Conte is exceedingly unlikely to prevail in the no-confidence vote.
But the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella, has wide constitutional power during periods of crisis. He could cobble together a caretaker government – with Mr Salvini on the outside – that could keep going into the spring.
Mr Salvini could also pay a price at the polls if voters disapprove of his attempt to throw Italy into political chaos.
But just as likely, pundits say, is that Mr Salvini leads Italy to its most fully right-wing government of the postwar era. Based on current polling, new elections would enable him to form a government with a small far-right party, the Brothers of Italy.
Asked why Mr Salvini would make a move to gain the premiership, Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian International Affairs Institute, said: “Hubris.”
“He thinks he can get 50% of the vote,” Ms Tocci said. “What he has done can only be explained in this way. He was already in charge. He was in charge without having to always take responsibility.”
Analysts also speculate that Mr Salvini may have faced pressure from inside his party to reconsider the marriage with the Five Star Movement, which was contentious nearly from the beginning.
The parties are both nominally populist, and they joined up after a muddled 2018 election led to protracted negotiations on creating a government.
But the two parties have starkly different visions on social programs and infrastructure. Five Star members, in power, have struggled to maintain the posture – as truth-telling vanguards against corruption – that fed their rise in popularity.
Italy is likely to face days of uncertainty about how things will resolve. Parliament is in recess. Lawmakers have headed to the beach.
Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome, said the country was in “uncharted” political territory, dealing with political chaos in August, and leaders will have to converge in Rome for consultations.
Mr Salvini has continued his beach tour but ramped up the explicit campaigning, saying he was asking Italians “to give me full powers to wholly do what we promised, without slowdowns or a millstone around our neck.”
Even during events as interior minister, Mr Salvini displays his party’s logo, unchanged from the 2018 campaign. “Salvini Premier,” it reads.
Senator Giovanbattista Fazzolari, of the far-right Brothers of Italy, said his party had a “similar vision” to that of the League and would make for a more coherent partner after a new election.
Some of Mr Salvini’s favoured ideas, including a high-speed rail link connecting France and northern Italy, were incompatible with the Five Star agenda.
Mr Salvini’s main vulnerability comes from within, many analysts say. Last month, an audio recording published by BuzzFeed appeared to show a lieutenant of Mr Salvini in Moscow negotiating a plan to illegally fund the League with Russian oil money.
There is no evidence that the deal went through or that Mr Salvini knew of the matter, and Mr Salvini has denied any wrongdoing.
But prosecutors in Milan are looking into the case, and the uncertainties hang over a politician who has lauded Vladimir Putin and advocated against Russian sanctions.
The League, so far, remains far and away Italy’s most popular party. It won roughly 17% of the votes in a March 2018 national election and 34% in May European elections. Based on polling this month, the League would command 38% of the vote in new national elections.
Lorenzo De Sio, a political science professor at Luiss Guido Carli University, said he didn’t see a major “extremist drift” in the Italian electoral base.
Rather, Mr Salvini has steadily won over voters in more centrist parties who agree that migration to Italy should be strictly limited, and who feel that the country has been abandoned by the EU in dealing with economic problems and a glut of asylum requests.
Just as important, Mr Salvini has proven to be a tireless salesman of his own brand, campaigning from town to town almost without interruption, tweeting about everything from pasta to immigrant crime, and making political theatre of his battles with other leaders – including the Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio.
“I think Salvini is thinking tactically,” said Federico Santi, a senior Europe analyst at the Eurasia Group. “It’s clear that the League has the upper hand now. They are polling so well.”