Can the Italian left halt the far right’s advance in Emilia-Romagna?

League leader Matteo Salvini is seeking to capture a traditional leftist stronghold, but a new protest movement is rallying. 

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Matteo Salvini has described the upcoming regional election in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, on 26 January as a cultural clash against left-wing hegemony. The leader of the far-right League promises to “liberate” the former social-democratic stronghold from the centre-left, which has held the regional government ever since its establishment in 1970. 

But the dominance of the Democratic Party (PD) in Emilia-Romagna formerly known as “the red region”, has faded over the past five years and given way to a populist backlash. The League won 34 per cent of the vote in the region in last year’s European elections, while the PD came second with 31 per cent. Another victory for Lega in Emilia-Romagna this Sunday against the PD, represented by incumbent president Stefano Bonaccini, would deliver a blow to the national coalition government between PD and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5s), and reinforce Salvini’s image as a prime minister in waiting.

The opposition leader has been extremely active in the electoral campaign, overshadowing the party’s weak and gaffe-prone candidate Lucia Borgonzoni. As of 11 January, Salvini had held 42 rallies in Emilia-Romagna, while Borgonzoni had held only 23. The former stated that “Lucia (Borgonzoni) and I will be participating in different kinds of events. She will meet business associations and interest groups, while I will meet ordinary citizens”. 

Salvini visited dozens of small towns and villages in Emilia-Romagna, taking selfies with voters and holding rallies in public squares. Support for the League is rooted in deprived rural districts, from which the PD has gradually withdrawn. “Far-right activists and campaigners are very present in those areas. As strange as it may sound the League reminds me of the Italian Communist Party, who used to be active in rural communities,” said Marco Valbruzzi of the Istituto Cattaneo, a think tank. 

“The League has replaced the communist internationalist outlook with a deeply nationalist vision of the world. Voters in rural areas are fearful of modernity and want to reaffirm their local identities”. Salvini portrays himself as the defender of traditional values and has photos taken of himself eating tortellini, a local speciality, or listening to folk music, to deliver the message. 

This time, however, it will be harder for him to rally his voters around a nativist and anti-immigration platform. The League owes much of its recent success to the migration crisis, which was Salvini’s main propaganda instrument as interior minister from June 2018 to August 2019. “But the number of migrants arriving from Northern Africa has collapsed over the years and the issue is no longer felt as a priority by voters,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster. “The current interior minister Luciana Lamorgese has arguably done a better job than Salvini himself. He can no longer criticise the current government for its record on migration”. 

This is unambiguously good news for the centre-left, whose supporters are concentrated in urban centres such as Bologna, Reggio Emilia and Ravenna. The PD has been nicknamed “il partito della Ztl” (“the party of the congestion charge area”) to indicate its strong performance among metropolitan and middle-class voters. Bologna, the largest city in Emilia-Romagna, is among the few places in Italy where the League’s share of the vote actually collapsed over the past year. 

“The PD now represents the cultural and economic elite,” says Valbruzzi. “It has gone beyond its traditional base of support and appeals also to liberal and moderate voters”. For instance, Pier Ferdinando Casini, a long-standing Christian Democrat and former ally of Silvio Berlusconi, was elected in Bologna with the support of a centre-left coalition at the 2018 general election.

Several members of the Guazzaloca administration, the only centre-right coalition elected in Bologna in the post-war period, have declared their support for Bonaccini, the PD president of Emilia-Romagna. The more radical wing of the PD has accused its former leader and prime minister Matteo Renzi of having eroded left-wing support. According to Elly Schlein, a former MEP who is standing in Emilia-Romagna on an environmentalist platform, “the centrist reforms under Renzi have caused a break up between PD and its traditional supporters, such as school teachers and trade unions. We should appeal to them instead of continuing to compete for the political centre”.

However, Bonaccini is a socialist pragmatist and former Renzi ally who is well-regarded by the local electorate. Many voters said they will cast their ballot for Bonaccini but will not vote for the PD, which is made possible by the disjointed voting system. 

The incumbent president has run a personalised campaign centred on his local expertise and the positive results achieved under his administration. The PD’s logo is largely absent from Bonaccini’s social media and almost none of the party’s heavyweights have visited Emilia-Romagna to support him. The spontaneous birth of a progressive social movement, known as the Sardines, has been an unexpected surprise for the centre-left. Four friends in their early 30s organised a flash mob in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, on 14 November to protest against Salvini’s rally in a nearby venue. Fifteen thousand people unexpectedly showed up and clustered in the public square – hence the name. Within days, thousands of people waving sardines gathered across Italy to protest against Salvini. 

Most demonstrators in Piazza Maggiore were left-wing supporters who would have voted for the PD regardless of the Sardines. But while the movement may not determine the result of the election, it has breathed some new life into the centre-left. “Until recently there was a very negative atmosphere, we thought we were set to lose the election,” says Schlein. “The Sardines proved that a large part of civil society is opposed to Salvini, and they might persuade some disgruntled left-wing supporters to vote for us on the 26th.” But the Sardines could prove a double-edged sword for the PD. They have transformed the local election into a referendum on Salvini, which is exactly what Bonaccini sought to avoid. If he loses on Sunday, we might never hear of the Sardines again.

Gregorio Sorgi is the London correspondent for Il Foglio and HuffPostItalia​