Italian-Egyptian singer’s victory angers Matteo Salvini

An Italian-Egyptian singer has become the latest target of Italy’s rightwing populist government after he won the Sanremo song festival, an annual competition that draws millions of TV viewers and is used to choose the Italian candidate for the Eurovision song contest.

Alessandro Mahmoud, who performs under the name Mahmood, secured a victory on Saturday night with votes from a jury made up of music experts and journalists, which together account for 60% of a contestants’ score.

The public vote, accounting for the other 40%, went to Ultimo, the pseudonym of a singer called Niccolò Moriconi.

“Mahmood …mah…the most beautiful Italian song? I would have chosen #Ultimo,” tweeted Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party. He later added that judging from the public’s reaction to the victory, “90% of people are perplexed”.

Salvini’s fellow deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, from the League’s Five Star Movement coalition partners, denounced the “abysmal distance between the people and the ‘elites’”. Mahmood’s victory represented the wishes of a minority jury mostly consisting “of journalists and the radical chic” rather than the “majority of voters at home”, Di Maio wrote on Facebook.

“Next year, maybe the winner should only be chosen by televoting, given that it costs Italians 51 cents to make them count!” he added.

The Italian state broadcaster, Rai, televised the competition. Its president, Marcello Foa, a controversial figure who has expressed anti-immigration views, also called for the voting system to be changed. He said there had been “a clear imbalance between the popular vote and a jury composed of a few dozen people” and the voting system needed to be fixed “so that the public feels represented.”

Foa was appointed president of Rai in September by a parliamentary committee, which oversees the broadcaster. He was put forward for the role by Salvini and Di Maio, despite strong opposition from the centre-left Democratic party and concerns from journalists’ unions.

The five-day festival, which this year attracted more than 10 million viewers, rarely passes without dispute. In January, singer-songwriter Claudio Baglioni’s role as host came under threat after he described Salvini’s rejection of 49 rescued migrants as “farcical”. During a post-show discussion on Friday night, singer Francesco Renga said female singers have “less harmonious voices” than their male counterparts in response to a question about the few female contestants.

Nevertheless, a high-profile political intervention is unusual.

“Every year there is something but with the type of government we have now and the story of Salvini and immigration, there seems to be a pretext,” said Federico Capitoni, a journalist and music critic for the daily newspaper La Repubblica. “It takes little to trigger propaganda, and when they want to, they will find a way to intervene.”

Mahmood was born in Milan to an Italian mother and Egyptian father. His winning song, Soldi (Money), recounts his childhood and includes Arabic words. He told reporters he is “100% Italian” and intended for the song to tell a story rather than make a political point.

Capitoni said it was plausible that some of the journalists on the voting panel may have been sending a political message by backing the singer.