Matteo Salvini waves hello to Siracusans attending his recent rally in Ortigia.

Salvini spilts Siracusans

The deputy minister’s speech inspired cheers, boos and explicit gestures

By PAMELA HASTEROK with photos by DON LINDLEY

Matteo Salvini waves hello to Siracusans attending his recent rally in Ortigia.

Siracusa, Italy

As political rallies go, this was a doozy.

Right after Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini broke up the country’s governing coalition, he arrived in our Sicilian

Salvini’s supporters cheered the deputy minister’s nationalist message.

Salvini’s supporters cheered the deputy minister’s nationalist message.

city of Siracusa to mobilize his supporters for the imminent election.

He was likely surprised by the welcome.

Banners protesting his anti-immigration policies greeted him as his motorcade snaked down stately Corso Umberto, the entrance to the ancient center. Half an hour before he arrived, military police were busy shooing young protesters from the stage. And during his 20-minute speech a group of hecklers seemingly as numerous as his followers often shouted over him.

The minister was undeterred. Salvini plunged ahead with his standard “Italy for Italians” (sound familiar?) rhetoric, denouncing immigrants, boosting nationalist fervor and contending he had halved the refugee death rate by blocking rescue ships from landing at Italian ports. He prepped his followers for the

Enraged protestors reacted to Salvini’s rhetoric

Enraged protestors reacted to Salvini’s rhetoric

important election ahead telling them only he could assure their safety and prosperity.

For the uninitiated, Salvini is the latest and loudest of Europe’s spate of new-born p

opulists, very much in the Donald Trump mode, but perhaps with more charm. He too denigrates the foreign born, the disabled and homosexuals. But he also vacations on the Mediterranean, plopping his portly frame and plastic float among the Italian families crowding the beach.

‘’A man with a paunch is a man of substance,’’ he told the New York Times.

Always one to appreciate spectacle, Salvini staged the sweltering night-time event in

front of Siracusa’s 5th Century B.C. Temple of Apollo. But even the sun god couldn’t reconcile the riven crowd.

Vociferous fans ringed the stage, waving Forza Italia flags (Italy Strong, the party of infamous former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi), chanting ‘’Matt-e-o! Matt-e-o!’’ and holding aloft placards that read ‘Salvini premier’. But behind that core group, detractors called him Pinocchio (for his many perceived lies) and ‘’imbroglione,’’ (trickster), and emphasized their point with raised middle fingers or an extended open hand, the traditional Fascist salute.

Sebastiano Amenta and his family spent part of a traditional Sunday “passeggiata” (stroll) listening to Salvini

Sebastiano Amenta and his family spent part of a traditional Sunday “passeggiata” (stroll) listening to Salvini

The outer edge of the crowd consisted of passers-by and interested onlookers who seemed to come primarily to confirm their views of the controversial deputy minister, for good or ill.

Of the seven people I spoke to, it was mostly ill.

‘’He’s ignorant,’’ said a woman and her partner visiting from Milan, Salvini’s home base. ‘’He knows nothing about Italian culture, Italian history or Italian politics. He’s a blot on our country.’’

Sebastiano Amenta, who works at the nearby oil refinery, brought his young family for a

Sunday night outing and brief political lesson.

‘’He’s only words, no action,’’ he said, ‘’and he’s a fascist,’’ the Italian equivalent of calling a German a Nazi.

But Angela, a middle-aged woman who came in from a nearby town to hear him speak , countered that Salvini, head of the far-right party the League, is the only candidate who is standing up for Italian values. He promises to restore order, enforce respect for police and honor women.

‘’We’re for him,’’ she said, including two girlfriends who accompanied her.

Welcome to Italy, the second most polarized country in the world.

Some in the audience greeted Salvini with Fascist open-handed salutes

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