MILAN — Six months ago, Matteo Salvini could not have imagined that the biggest threat to his leadership of the far-right League party would be one of his closest allies.
But as the coronavirus pandemic redraws Italy’s political map, the polls are pointing to a dangerous new challenger: Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto, has become a household name in the country and skyrocketed in popularity. His 51 percent approval rating makes him the second-most loved politician in Italy, behind Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, at 59 percent.
That Zaia’s star is rising is in no small part thanks to his handling of the health crisis in Veneto, one of the most severely affected regions in Italy. His administration’s success stands in stark contrast to the catastrophe that took place in Lombardy, which had one of the highest death rates in the country and whose governor, fellow League-member Attilio Fontana, has been accused of negligence and incompetence.
Zaia’s surge in the polls is fueling speculation he could soon supplant Salvini at the helm of the party following regional elections in September. Already extremely popular in his Veneto region, Zaia won the last two regional elections by a high margin and has earned widespread admiration from outside the League party for his crisis management.
Speaking to POLITICO, Zaia insists he is not after the party’s top job, and brushes aside speculation he may be the new League chief.
“Salvini should not be afraid of me” — Luca Zaia, president of Veneto’s government
“They are wrong if they think I want to fill Matteo Salvini’s shoes,” Zaia said. “My history in the League has been about respect for our roles, I have no ambition to rise up in the party.”
He added that he has an excellent relationship with Salvini, who congratulated him on how he managed the crisis in Veneto.
Known for keeping a low profile, Zaia downplayed recent polls, which predict he could be reelected by a greater majority than Salvini, whose own popularity has dropped to 37 percent.
“It’s normal,” Zaia said. “These surveys are the result of recent times. They are conditioned by COVID-19. At university, I also studied statistics and I know that the data is a result of the time in which it was collected.”
He added: “Salvini should not be afraid of me.”
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Others beg to differ. And Salvini himself appears to paying attention.
Out of the public eye for much of the pandemic, Salvini has returned to public squares to denounce the government’s leadership during the crisis and attempt to recapture lost ground ahead of the regional election.
For the League leader, the stakes are high.
The party has historically been split into two factions: the Lombardy League, now dominated by Salvini, a firebrand who took the party mainstream on an anti-immigration platform, and the Venetian League, whose members have long felt marginalized. They are likely to rally behind Zaia, whom they consider one of their own.
If the September elections confirm Zaia’s far greater popularity within the party, Salvini could be forced to step aside and make room for a rising star who could take the League in a new direction.
League leader Matteo Salvini and Veneto leader Luca Zaia give a press conference in Rome on February 18, 2014 | Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images
According to Flavio Tosi, a former mayor of Verona and a former League member, the greatest difference between Zaia and Salvini is that one knows how to govern and the other does not.
“Salvini is OK when there is a big mess, but when there is a need to govern, no,” Tosi told Italian media Il Foglio. “So much so that today he is gone. He ran out of slogans. With immigration gone and attacks on Europe subdued, Salvini has nothing to say.”
By contrast, he added, “Zaia has continued to be an administrator.”
Zaia’s management of the crisis — on exhibit, particularly, in the village of Vo’ near Padua — has become a powerful symbol of his political style and potential leadership, also earning him plaudits from outside his own party.
If public criticism of Zaia is scarce, he does have detractors, who bristle at the credit he’s received for his work in Veneto.
The village made headlines in late February when it recorded Italy’s first victim of COVID-19 and immediately became a so-called red zone, along with other municipalities in the area.
With all eyes trained on the region, Zaia made a choice later heralded as a rare example of political level-headedness: He introduced the systematic testing of the village’s 3,300 inhabitants, closed the hospital where the first COVID-19 patient was treated to avoid further infections, and arranged for triage tents to be set up for incoming suspected cases, before these were common practice elsewhere.
“We went looking for the virus,” Zaia told POLITICO in an interview, even though at the time, he added, the World Health Organization “said I was exaggerating.”
The campaign to test residents for COVID-19 and for antibodies to the virus, which Zaia developed in collaboration with the epidemiologist Andrea Crisanti, was later expanded to the rest of the region. It has been credited with saving Veneto’s residents from the kind of tragic outcomes seen in neighboring Lombardy.
These displays of pragmatism help explain why Zaia is doing so well in the polls, even as Italy has seen a “rally-around-the-flag effect” that seen support for his party dip on a national scale, falling from 34 percent in last year’s European election to just 24 percent today.
But if public criticism of Zaia is scarce, he does have detractors, who bristle at the credit he’s received for his work in Veneto.
Veneto has had a better time managing the coronavirus crisis than other regions of Italy like Lombardy | Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
The region’s success in fighting the virus is down to Crisanti, the epidemiologist, not Zaia, according to Piero Ruzzante, Veneto’s regional councilor.
“Zaia, who now tries to obscure the importance of the part Crisanti played, owes everything to the professor,” Ruzzante told POLITICO, adding that Zaia had overseen cuts to health services in previous years.
“Today it seems he made a miracle in Veneto, but few remember that at the beginning of the emergency, he was against the red zones and said things like ‘Veneto does not close,’ like many other Italian politicians.”
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The prospect of a League party headed by someone like Zaia could indeed mark a major change in direction for the party, and help it regain the support it lost in recent months, some say.
Unlike Salvini, who gained notoriety for his anti-immigration positions as interior minister, Zaia is mostly still unknown outside Italy’s borders. He is a member of the League’s old guard: The son of a mechanic, he entered politics at the age of 25 and was an agriculture minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government between 2008 and 2010.
He is, by his own description, “a convinced Europeanist,” even if he has said he doesn’t agree with some decisions the European Union has made.
If everyone does politics his own way, this may be Zaia’s: Keep a low profile and admit no ambition.
Unlike Salvini, Zaia is known to avoid political fights. He is not a shouter, doesn’t take selfies or post livestreams on Instagram.
If Salvini conquered Italian’s minds by appealing to baser instincts via social media, waving rosaries and popularizing slogans against immigration, Zaia appears to have gained support more quietly, through the success of his work as governor of Veneto.
Not to be drawn out on the differences between him and his party leader, Zaia dodged a question on whether he agrees with Salvini’s often inflammatory rhetoric.
“I am part of the League that shouts less, but we work well together,” he said. “Everyone has his own language and his own way of communicating.”
If everyone does politics his own way, this may be Zaia’s: Keep a low profile and admit no ambition. Let the polls do the rest.