Salvini, the Italian Interior Minister and League party leader, is well known for borrowing the uniforms of Italian police and firefighters to boost his “man of the people” image while out and about on his seemingly endless tour of the country.
And now the minister has been accused of abusing his position after enlisting the help of the emergency services to prevent peaceful protest along the campaign trail, as well as reportedly making use of aircraft belonging to the police force to attend his party's rallies.
Matteo Salvini (centre) wearing the uniform of the Italian fire brigade. Photo: Matteo Salvini/Twitter
The mayor of Bergamo complained after firefighters were ordered to take down a protest banner from outside a private residential building ahead of Salvini's visit to the area.
The sign, which read “you are not welcome”, was taken down by firefighters following a request from local police, Italian media reported.
Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori posted photos on Twitter on Monday showing firefighters using ladder equipment to remove the banner, and asked: “Who gave them the order to intervene? Under what authority?”
Stamattina alle 9 Salvini parlava a Brembate (Bergamo) ad un’iniziativa di partito. Una signora ha esposto alla finestra uno striscione (vedi foto). Poco dopo lo striscione è stato rimosso dai vigili del fuoco. Domando: chi ha dato loro l’ordine di intervenire? A che titolo? pic.twitter.com/ZATp7HuoI6
— Giorgio Gori (@giorgio_gori) May 13, 2019
Fire service union CGIL said it was demanding an explanation from the Interior Ministry and stated that firefighers had been “forced” to remove the banner,
“It's unacceptable. Firefighters conduct rescues, not propaganda,” read the union's statement. “This is not the job of the fire brigade.”
Meanwhile, firefighters told The Local that the incident was “a disgrace” that “shames all of us.”
“Since when are we employed to protect the feelings of Salvini?” said one firefighter from Sicily.
Matteo Salvini speaking at a rally in Abruzzo. Photo: AFP
The incident triggered widespread anger across Italy and concerns over the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the country's constitution.
Two days later, protestors responded by hanging some 200 banners ahead of Salvini's rally in Campobasso, with messages such as “The League disgusts Campobasso” and “We remain human.”
Protestors said they plan to do the same at upcoming events in Milan, Rome, Bologna, Rimini and elsewhere.
Many Italians took to social media to mock the minister, posting photos of their favourite protest banners under the hashtag #Salvinitoglianchequesti (Salvini take these down as well)
— Cecilia (@Cecilia45649803) May 16, 2019
Salvini later told local journalists that banners shouldn't be removed from buildings “unless they cause problems with public order”, saying “If one says 'Salvini is ugly', who cares?”
But this is far from the first time emergency service workers have been deployed to prevent peaceful protests against the League and its leader.
Earlier this month police entered a woman's home in Salerno and ordered her to remove a banner from her balcony which read “This League is a shame” ahead of Salvini's visit to the area.
As protestors continue to use Salvini's love of selfies against him on the campaign trail, the minister ordered police to seize a woman's mobile phone after she shot a video in which she asked him if he still thought southern Italians were “terroni” – a derogatory term for people from the south of Italy.
— mc (@m44250) May 15, 2019
At the same time, Italian media reports that Salvini has been regularly using police aircraft to attend League party rallies during the year that he has been in government.
Since becoming interior minister and co-deputy prime minister last year, Salvini has taken at least twenty “top secret” flights in P-180 aircraft known as the “ferrari of the skies”.
The flights were ostensibly for ministerial visits, which always tied in neatly with rallies for his League party, Repubblica reported.
“Salvini, to satisfy his continuous marathon, also uses scheduled flights and trains,” Repubblica wrote. “However, compared to the other ministers, he is the only one to have a squadron practically at his command. He can exploit it by bending the rules and linking up party events with institutional appointments.”
Prosecutors in Rome have opened an investigation into the accusations, which Salvini denies.
He said the flights “were always used for institutional commitments,” and “I challenge anyone to show the contrary.”
The League's government coalition partners, the Five Star Movement, elected on promises to clean up government and stop abuses of power, described it as “a strange affair.”
Such flights cost the state up to five thousand euros per hour, a source from the Italian Air Force told The Local.
Having these jets at his disposal might help explain how the minister has managed to attend a staggering 211 electoral events around Italy in the past four months alone, while so far he has spent just 17 days at the interior ministry, according to Repubblica's analysis.