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In another country, and another moment, such damning allegations might have brought down a government, as happened recently in Austria. In Italy, they have done no such thing. The BuzzFeed report could weaken Salvini in the long term, but in the short term it might actually strengthen the current government—an uncomfortable coalition of the League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement—by delaying the prospect of early elections, and bolster Salvini by showing his political agility.
In elections for the European Parliament in May, which are a gauge of national voter sentiment, Salvini’s League doubled its percentage of the vote compared with its showing in national elections last year, while the Five Star Movement’s standing shrank. This opened the tense prospect of early elections, which the League might have won with a solid-enough majority to govern on its own.
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After the BuzzFeed scoop—and with Italy’s economy in dire shape, forecast to have the lowest growth rate in the European Union this year—it’s no longer in Salvini’s immediate interest to bring down the government in the hope of securing a majority in a new vote. Instead, he turned to his social-media feeds, which have become a powerful arm of government and a way of connecting with voters, and pulled a classic maneuver: When under fire, play the victim.
On Thursday, Salvini tweeted about stray dogs left behind at a center for asylum seekers after the government shut the center down. (He said the dogs needed adopting, and has generally shown more empathy for the dogs than for the asylum seekers.) He tweeted a picture of himself after a vote reducing the number of Italian members of Parliament. And he posted an 18-minute handheld video on Facebook in which he conflated the BuzzFeed report with an unrelated incident in which someone had sent a .22-caliber bullet in the mail to him, addressed to “il Duce Salvini,” the term used for Mussolini.
“Waking up with a bullet aimed at you isn’t the best way to wake up,” Salvini said. He also mentioned the bullet when he addressed the Italian Senate on Thursday in a debate about immigration. Never mind that he is the most powerful politician in Italy—in his telling, really, he’s the one under attack.
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Here he has some allies. The president of the Italian Senate, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, who is from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, dismissed the report as “journalistic gossip.” Yet Salvini also has some critics. The center-left opposition and two previous center-left prime ministers have called for a parliamentary inquiry into the BuzzFeed report. The Milan prosecutor’s office said it had opened a judicial investigation into the allegations reported by BuzzFeed, as well as those in the earlier story in L’Espresso.