By Crispian Balmer
BOLOGNA, Italy (Reuters) – The “Sardines” grassroots movement protesting against the populism of far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini staged a mass rally in the northern city of Bologna on Sunday ahead of a regional vote that could shake up national politics.
Salvini’s resurgent League party and his rightist allies are looking to end almost 75 years of unbroken leftist rule in the well-to-do Emilia Romagna region in next Sunday’s election, with latest polls putting the two camps neck and neck.
Alarmed at the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe League, a group of four friends created the Sardines movement in November to challenge Salvini’s often abrasive message. It has earned its name by packing squares throughout the region and beyond with supporters.
They returned to the birthplace of their group on Sunday, staging a concert that organizers said had drawn between 35,000 and 40,000 people, many waving cut-out sardines. The police did not immediately provide their own crowd estimate.
“Salvini plays on people’s fears, he is trying to turn us against newcomers, against foreigners. We mustn’t let him win,” said Cristina Camurani, 60, who was wearing a toy fish on her head. “It would be a huge shock if the left lost here.”
Salvini has been crisscrossing Emilia Romagna for weeks, visiting more than 100 municipalities in a tireless drive to secure a shock victory that he hopes could cause Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s national government to fall.
In a rare political mistake, Salvini walked out of a ruling coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement last August, expecting his move to trigger early elections. Instead, the center-left Democratic Party (PD) took the League’s place in government, leaving him to languish in opposition ranks.
He says victory on Jan. 26 in this once impregnable PD stronghold would show that the new coalition had no electoral legitimacy and should therefore stand aside.
“On January 27th … with victory in my pocket, I will issue Conte with an eviction order,” Salvini told thousands of supporters on Saturday in the nearby town of Maranello, home to Ferrari – a symbol of Italian engineering and sporting prowess.
Emilia Romagna is one of Italy’s wealthiest regions with an unemployment rate of around 5%, half the national average. But despite its economic success, Salvini has tapped into concerns about security, immigration and high taxes.
“After 70 years of leftist-led administrations here, I say the time has come to release the energies (on the right) that have been compressed for too long,” said local League politician Modesto Amicucci, who attended the Maranello rally.
Salvini has dragged his party from the edge of extinction six years ago to make it the biggest force in Italy. The Sardine leaders say they have no intention of becoming a political party and instead want to promote civility and counter populism.
“We have already chalked up our first victory,” one of the Sardine founders, Mattia Santori, said on Sunday, arguing that his movement had helped lower political tensions by providing a good-natured outlet for Salvini’s foes.
“Don’t forget that just a few months ago, the political and social climate in Italy was very different to what it is now.”
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino; Editing by Pravin Char)