Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival, the model for everything from Eurovision to The X-Factor, is one of the oldest and most prestigious of its kind. On Saturday evening 26-year-old Alessandro Mahmoud, who goes by the stage name Mahmood, won the 69th edition of the festival with his song Soldi (Money). But this was no ordinary win. This win was about much more than music – it was political and important.

‘The singer Ultimo openly insulted Mahmood and journalists in the post-show press conference.’ Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

In effect, the press and the jury voted against Salvini, and by doing so they opened themselves up to criticism. Some Italians felt outrage at learning that their votes had been essentially overturned – though this is not the first time the system has worked in this way. Ultimo, meanwhile, took to Instagram to condemn the voting process of the festival.

His stance, echoing Donald Trump, was to cast the journalists and experts as the bad guys. Openly insulting Mahmood and journalists in the post-show press conference, Ultimo goaded: “You have this week to feel important.” The situation rapidly escalated: “Here is a mirror of the country,” Salvini declared, “the opposition between people and elites.”

For Salvini, Mahmood is simply a pawn in a leftist agenda – the idea that his music might actually be good is apparently incomprehensible.

The Sanremo system aims to create the perfect mix, balancing the wisdom of experts with popular taste. Salvini heralds the idea of populism over expertise. He wants a competition without judges – and he’d like a country without them, too. You only have to look at how the League and Five Star coalition government are already dispensing with experts in other areas to see a pattern emerging. In December alone they sacked the entirety of Italy’s medical health advisory board.

Mahmood may not have been most of the voting public’s first choice, but after the result they embraced him: Soldi has shot to the top of the country’s charts and streaming platforms. The most esteemed music festival in the country chose a winner who represents aspects of life that Salvini and the far right want to erase – crucially, they’ve also chosen a song that critics, jurors and fans enjoyed too. His combined score came out on top in the festival, and now it’s playing out in the real world too.

This certainly won’t be the last we’ll hear of the talented young performer, and I hope it won’t be the last we hear of all that he represents. Mahmood will now go on to represent Italy at this year’s Eurovision in May in Tel Aviv – an event that is set to be steeped in its own controversy. Regardless, Soldi is going to be around for a while – Salvini may have to start listening to things he doesn’t want to hear.

Thea Hawlin is a freelance journalist based in Milan

This article was amended on 15 February 2019. A previous version inaccurately suggested that Salvini’s tweets were sent early enough to have affected the result of the competition.