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The pop star the populists love to hate

Credit: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

May 18, 2019   4 mins

Expectations are high in advance of the forthcoming pan-European vote. And emotions are, too, as people across the continent prepare to vote on candidates of widely diverging abilities.

It’s the Eurovision Song Contest of course. And nowhere is it causing more upset than in Italy.

Soldi [Money], Italy’s entry song, is among the favourites to win this year’s festival of camp. It’s an irresistibly catchy tune by singer-songwriter Mahmood; it was number one in Italy for six weeks. Even now, it’s in the top 10 of the singles charts. The official Italian YouTube upload of the video has passed 80 million views, with remixes featuring well-known DJs; it’s been streamed more on Spotify than any other Italian debut.

But not everyone’s singing along. In fact, Mahmood has been the subject of much political controversy. In Italy, His selection has highlighted the political divisions between a perceived out-of-touch elite and the majority who voted to oust traditional parties at elections last year, ushering in a populist coalition of the far-Right League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement. In its inimitable way, Eurovision is foreshadowing real life and setting the stage for the other European electoral competition happening next week – between those who support the strengthening of the EU project and those who prioritise nationalism.

Though he was born in Italy to an Egyptian immigrant father and Italian mother, Mahmood’s identity as an Italian is being called into question. His entry has also been criticised for not being “Italian” enough. Indeed, it is influenced by traditional Middle Eastern music, using hand clapping and Arabic dialect, and draws on the cultures he grew up with, describing a father who “drinks champagne during Ramadan” and ultimately abandons the family.

Mahmood, according to one critic “is the symbol of total integration … He represents the younger generation that is outward looking”. But according to many other Italians, he should never have been picked in the first place. The choice of such a politically correct multi-cultural candidate was an obvious fix.

The fireworks began back in February, when he was selected as Italy’s entry for Eurovision. This momentous decision takes place at the Festival of Italian Song, commonly known as the San Remo contest. It is a national institution, dating back to 1951, and gets audiences of over 10 million, eclipsing talent shows such as X-Factor. It is beloved of those generations who are most likely to still be watching live television.

Perhaps reflecting the tastes of those viewers, the popular vote on the night went to the young artist Ultimo, who sang a more traditional Italian ballad. It came as some surprise, then, when Mahmood was chosen as the ultimate winner by a panel of judges. There was immediate outrage from the viewers. And then the politicians spotted an opportunity and weighed right in.

Deputy prime minister and leader of the Right-wing League Matteo Salvini was first with a tweet: “#Mahmood…………… meh………… The most beautiful Italian song?!?”

The singer, according to Salvini, had been “used” by the Left, who had exalted him “as the singer of the boat landings… This is a mirror of the country and the opposition between the people and the elite.”

Luigi Di Maio – leader of anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the other deputy prime minister – joined in, calling for the judges’ vote to be scrapped in favour of a public vote “that counts”. Echoing Salvini, he said that the case “made millions of Italians aware of the abysmal distance between the people and the elite”.

While in other countries, such interest from political heavyweights in a song contest might be cause for head-scratching, the selection came at a critical political moment. The coalition was at risk of collapsing, as Five Star was polling its supporters over a decision to grant Salvini political immunity from prosecution over his detention of a migrant vessel Diciotti.

Five Star did ultimately support Salvini over the abuse of power charges, which allowed the government to endure. But in the run-up to the other European elections, the differences between the two governing parties are being stoked up. Five Star have sought to distance themselves from Salvini’s nationalist rhetoric and have forced the resignation of a senior League MP for alleged corruption.

Since the “government of change” was formed between the two populist parties last year, Salvini, who is in theory the junior partner, has become the most important politician in the country – and, arguably, in Europe. With his strong social media presence and knack for sound-bites, he has consistently set the political agenda; his popularity has been strengthened by his tough anti-immigration stance, blocking the ports and closing refugee shelters.

The vote next week will provide the first major European test for populist parties and immigration remains a top issue for Italian voters. “Immigration was not invented by Salvini, but it affects deep sections in Italian society and, in a time of economic crisis, immigrants are seen as a target,” says Alberto Castelvecchi, professor of political communications at Luiss University in Rome.

The League is projected to win more than 30% of the Europe vote, superseding Five Star, which won the larger vote share in last year’s general election. But Salvini’s party has slipped in the polls over the last few weeks, probably because of infighting, notes Antonio Noto of Noto Polls:

“Italians do not like political conflict, especially between the two governing forces. The voters expect to be reassured by the government, not worried by constant quarrels.”

Much is riding on next week’s elections, though. If the League takes more of Italy’s 73 European Parliament seats than its rivals next week, it will be a turning point. It could tempt Salvini to force snap elections with the aim of forming a Right-wing coalition with the hard-Right Brothers of Italy and remainder of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

The ones listening to Mahmood –  the open, European-facing, pro-international cohort – the ones who could swing things in the other direction, are unlikely to turn out to vote. In any use, even if he wins tonight, it’s unlikely his victory would make a dent in the anti-European sentiment pervading Italy.

After all, as Mahmood is belting his tune out to the Eurovision audience in Tel Aviv, Salvini will be at home in Milan, playing a key part in a massive rally of Eurosceptics. Campaigning alongside Marine Le Pen and representatives of Germany’s far-Right AfD, he’ll aim to show that there is unity left in Europe – between those who put their own nations first.

As ever, Eurovision holds the mirror up to real life: during its 50 years of history, it’s always descended into strategic alliances in the national interest. And that’s what we can surely expect from Italy next week.

Hannah Roberts is an award-winning freelance British journalist who has reported from Italy for the past six years. She has previously lived and worked as a journalist in South Africa, India, London and New York. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, Politico Europe, the i and the New European.


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