Italy's Rising Nationalists Have a Money Problem

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Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the leader of the League,  appearing on Sunday on a TV show. His party is growing in popularity but faces possible bankruptcy from a stiff fine for past corruption.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the leader of the League, appearing on Sunday on a TV show. His party is growing in popularity but faces possible bankruptcy from a stiff fine for past corruption.


Photo:

Mistrulli/Fotogramma/Ropi/Zuma Press

ROME—Italian nativist politician Matteo Salvini, whose popularity has surged since he became interior minister in June, has hit his first setback. His anti-immigration League party faces possible bankruptcy from a penalty assessed for past corruption.

Mr. Salvini’s governing partners, the anticorruption 5 Star Movement, have pressed him in recent days to comply with a court ruling last week that the League must repay €49 million ($57 million) of public funding for election costs stretching back a decade. The ruling stemmed from an early conviction, now under appeal, of the League’s former leaders for embezzling public election funds.

Mr. Salvini’s party says it doesn’t have the money. Its officials say the League’s existence has been put in jeopardy by the court’s demand that all its future proceeds be seized until the full €49 million is repaid.

When court rulings in the long-running case first began to go against the League last year, Mr. Salvini lashed out against the judiciary, calling its earlier seizure of a smaller sum “an attack on democracy.” Now, however, the usually blunt party leader has reacted calmly by his combative standards. “There are some judicial investigations,” he said last week. “I hope they’ll conclude well and quickly.”

The bearded 45-year-old former journalist, known for his provocative rhetoric on migrants and law and order, has transformed the League from a northern Italian secessionist movement into an anti-immigration party with growing nationwide support. The League won 17% of the vote in Italy’s parliamentary elections this March, but opinion polls now say more than 30% of Italians support the party.

Mr. Salvini’s verbal attacks on established authorities in Italy and the European Union, often delivered in video harangues on Facebook, have made him a leading player in the contest between Europe’s traditional political class and its populist upstarts.

But if the judiciary seizes all of the League’s future funds as threatened, “at that point it is clear that a political party ceases to exist,” Giancarlo Giorgetti, Mr. Salvini’s right-hand man and a senior government official, said recently. The League has already warned its employees it might not be able to pay their salaries much longer.

Unless the League can successfully appeal for the penalty to be reversed or watered down, Italy’s main far-right party could seek to avoid paying by reconstituting itself under another name. League officials are already considering that option, people familiar with the matters say, though Mr. Salvini has publicly said it won’t happen.

The case has led to the first serious rift between the League and its governing partner, the 5 Star Movement, whose raison d’être is to clean up Italy’s rotten political class. Officials in the coalition, which took power on June 1, say they don’t expect the alliance to break apart over the issue. However, the case highlights the prospect that Italy’s coalition government joining two starkly different kinds of populism might not last long.

The 5 Star Movement, which promises voters a crackdown on corruption and poverty, and the League, which pledges to slash immigration and taxes, have little in common apart from their antipathy to Italy’s previously incumbent centrist establishment.

5 Star officials privately say their partner’s corruption travails are deeply embarrassing and potentially damaging to a movement that promised Italians a new kind of politics. “This is a real problem for the 5 Star and they won’t be able to be too lenient with the League on this,” said Giovanni Orsina,  a history professor at Rome’s LUISS University.

Alessandro Di Battista, a leading 5 Star politician, told Italian TV that if he were a League supporter he would expect Mr. Salvini to repay the €49 million. “That’s taxpayers’ money. Court decisions must be respected,” Mr. Di Battista said.

The stiff penalty isn’t Mr. Salvini’s only legal headache. He has also recently been placed under judicial investigation regarding allegations that he abused the office of interior minister when he refused for five days to let scores of asylum seekers disembark from an Italian coast-guard ship that had rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea. Public prosecutors in Sicily, where the ship docked, are probing whether Mr. Salvini’s move amounted to kidnapping.

Mr. Salvini rejects the charges. “I would do it again,” he told League supporters last week.

Write to Giovanni Legorano at giovanni.legorano@wsj.com