Salvini: Italian nationalist leader eclipsed by rival
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Matteo Salvini turned his once regional League party into a national force in government, but the far-right leader has seen his star eclipsed by the more polished Giorgia Meloni.
The League looks set to return to power after Sunday's elections but, according to polls, with far less support than in 2018, making him a junior partner in a right-wing coalition led by Meloni's post-fascist Brothers of Italy.
Meloni pursues a similar far-right, eurosceptic, "Italians First" platform to Salvini, but she puts a more polished, some say more respectable face on their policies -- despite her links to Italy's neo-fascist movement.
Many supporters also see her as a clean break from the past.
Salvini, 49, has been in and out of government since the last general election in 2018, joining the populist Five Star Movement and later, Prime Minister Mario Draghi's national unity coalition.
Meloni, whose party won just four percent of the vote in 2018, was the only political leader to keep out of Draghi's team, making her the only real opposition.
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"I like her. She's a straightforward, nice person... Let's try a change," said Paolo Berardi, a 50-something former Salvini supporter at one of Meloni's rallies last month.
Born in Milan on March 9, 1973, Salvini was just 17 when he joined the then-Northern League, a secessionist party dedicated to autonomy for Italy's northern regions whose members routinely insulted poorer southern Italians as "parasites".
But after rising through the ranks, he transformed the party into a national force, shifting its attention onto the EU, the euro and the tens of thousands of migrants arriving on Italy's shores yearly from north Africa.
When he was interior minister in 2019 -- also serving as deputy prime minister -- Salvini blocked several charity rescue ships carrying migrants from disembarking in Italy, under his party's "closed ports" policy.
The move saw him prosecuted in Sicily on charges of kidnapping and abuse of office, in an ongoing trial he has worn as a badge of honour.
Subtlety is not his style -- he was often seen holding a Roman Catholic rosary or a Bible on the campaign trail, once even calling publicly on the Virgin Mary to carry him to victory.
He pulled out of government in 2019 after securing a stunning 34 percent of the vote in European Parliament elections, in the hope of sparking a new national vote that he might win.
However, he was outmanoeuvred by his coalition allies who formed a new administration without him.
During this election campaign, Salvini has focused on immigration but also on demanding help for households and businesses hit by soaring energy prices.
At the same time, he has demanded tax cuts, notably a blanket "flat tax" of 15 percent.
Salvini has moved away from earlier demands for Italy to leave the EU's single currency but continues to strongly criticise Brussels.
Last year he attended a meeting with other far-right leaders including Hungary's Viktor Orban and France's Marine Le Pen to discuss their plans to "reform" the bloc.
The war in Ukraine has sparked fresh scrutiny of his ties to Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, he has long admired, even wearing T-shirts bearing Putin's face.
Salvini criticised Western sanctions on Russia for being ineffective, putting him at odds with Meloni, who has strongly supported Ukraine.
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