Battle Bologna: Can Italy's far-right Salvini be stopped by the sardines?

PUBLISHED: 06:30 24 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:01 24 January 2020

Leader of Italy's far-right League (Lega) party, Matteo Salvini (C) gestures on stage next to centre-right Senator and regional candidate Lucia Borgonzoni (L) during a campaign rally on January 18, 2020 in Maranello, a week ahead of Emilia-Romagna regional vote. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images

Leader of Italy's far-right League (Lega) party, Matteo Salvini (C) gestures on stage next to centre-right Senator and regional candidate Lucia Borgonzoni (L) during a campaign rally on January 18, 2020 in Maranello, a week ahead of Emilia-Romagna regional vote. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images

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Regional elections in a traditional left-wing stronghold in northern Italy could help propel the far-right into power. PAUL KNOTT reports.

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Italy's leading far-right rabble-rouser Matteo Salvini spent last summer touring the country's beaches, mojito in hand, campaigning to overthrow the government in which he was serving as deputy prime minister and interior minister.

His aim was to provoke elections from which he would emerge with "full powers". But his unscrupulous scheme failed. The nearest thing to a far-right takeover of Italy since Mussolini was hung from a metal girder in Milan was narrowly averted when, in August, Salvini's erstwhile populist coalition partners, the Five Star Movement, cobbled together a surprise new government with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) they had long affected to despise.

Sadly, this incongruous arrangement looks increasingly likely to be short-lived. The present governing alliance has largely failed to tackle any of Italy's problems. Five Star is imploding. And enough frustrated voters seem ready to reward Salvini for his relentless campaigning by granting him the power he craves.

A critical step towards this could come in this weekend's regional elections in Emilia-Romagna, where the candidate of Salvini's Lega party, senator Lucia Borgonzoni, is edging ahead of the PD's incumbent regional president, Stefano Bonaccini, in the polls.

Emilia-Romagna is a traditional left-wing stronghold centred around the affluent regional capital, Bologna. The city is often referred to as Bologna Rosso - red Bologna. While the nickname was originally coined on account of the distinctive colour of Bologna's old, stone city centre buildings, it has equally come to refer to its long-standing support for Italy's once powerful and pragmatic Communist Party, which was largely folded into the PD a couple of decades ago.

The region currently has one of Italy's fastest economic growth rates (not a stiff competition at the moment, admittedly) and unemployment stands at half the national average. These figures, though, mask frustrations at the wider economic stagnation in Italy and big local issues such as the collapse of the Ferrara savings bank, in which 130,000 depositors lost their savings.

Salvini and his colleagues are exploiting these problems to whip up fears about economic insecurity and immigration, while promising to protect the small businesses that predominate in the region.

In echoes of other western democracies, Salvini's Lega populists are generating support from some of the people struggling in the less prosperous smaller towns and rural areas of Emilia-Romagna, adding them to the better-off bigots who form their base.

A victory for the hard-right Lega in Italy's bastion of socialism would send a shockwave through Italian politics. Allied to Salvini's strong national polling numbers, it could be enough to topple the tottering central government and trigger a general election that he would almost certainly win.

The problems of the current coalition government largely stem from the failure of the Five Star movement to adjust to the responsibilities of power. As many observers predicted when it came into office, a movement built for protest has been unable to turn its platform into a workable programme for government. Five Star's leaders are agitators rather than administrators. They have dithered repeatedly out of fear of upsetting some of their supporters and failed to take the hard policy decisions needed to run a country as desperately in need of reform as Italy.

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Five Star's ministers have waved through various major infrastructure and energy projects they once railed against, whilst simultaneously looking absurd by complaining about them as if they were still powerless and in opposition. Meanwhile, their bold proclamations on issues such as ending poverty have failed to make much impact in practice. These failures are being compounded by cases of familial corruption strikingly similar to those for which Five Star excoriated more established politicians during the movement's rise to power. The father of Five Star's "political leader", foreign minister Luigi di Maio, has admitted paying his employees "off the books" and pressuring them not to report work injuries, while also building an illegal property. Perhaps most damaging of all, the movement's 'grey eminence' Davide Casaleggio is alleged to have used its extensive online database (the centrepiece of Five Star's claim to be bringing about a new politics built on direct, digital democracy) for personal profit.

The movement's alleged hypocrisy and ineptitude has halved its support in the polls and is now leading to its implosion. Education minister Lorenzo Fioramonti resigned from the government and party in December following a row over spending on schools and universities. Three of its more mercenary MPs have crossed over to the ascending Lega, in the hope of prolonging their stays in parliament. Six others have fallen in with the 'Mixed Group' of assorted minority and micro-parties in the Chamber of Deputies, while other party figures have been expelled for various offences against the leadership.

Amid this Five Star dysfunction, the PD has found it difficult to exert its steadying, experienced influence on the government. As a result, the administration is giving the impression of doing nothing more than prolonging Italy's drift, making it an easy target for Salvini's energetic attacks.

MORE: Swimming against the tide - who are Italy's anti-fascist 'sardines'?

In the short-term, leaving the government has worked for Salvini. While his former Five Star partners continue to flounder in office, he has been freed from responsibility and is able to concentrate on what he does best - attract the limelight with incendiary rhetoric that blames immigrants, so-called elites and, occasionally, the EU for Italy's problems.

Should events follow their projected course and Salvini end up in power sometime this year with a majority all of his own, he will face similar problems to Five Star.

Simplistic sloganeering might get you elected in a disgruntled country but is not a blueprint for good governance. Immigrants are not, of course, responsible for Italy's ills, which include outdated public services and serious, structural economic problems.

In reality, solving those requires detailed policies, making difficult decisions that displease some of your backers and the disciplined commitment to seeing them through.

Unlike the shambolic Five Star, the fear is how far someone as ruthless in his pursuit of power as Salvini might go to divert attention from his reluctance to address the real issues.

His critics argue that his record as interior minister suggests that his determination to prevent migrant ships from reaching shore would lead to many more migrant deaths. He is accused of offering nods and winks in sympathy with the violent neo-fascist groups and racist football 'ultras' who already commit regular assaults on minorities.

On a geopolitical level, Salvini's affinity with Russia's Vladimir Putin - some claim there are financial links between Moscow and the Lega - would boost the Kremlin's campaign to undermine Europe from within. Even under his own steam, Salvini's previous pronouncements suggest he would willingly undermine Italy's crucial relationship with its EU partners, if he thought that fanning xenophobia and blaming "Brussels" would help him to hold onto power.

Back in Bologna, a grassroots opposition movement to Salvini and his message of hatred is growing in strength. Known as 'the sardines' for their ability to pack people into city squares, they drew a crowd of 30-40,000 to central Bologna on January 19. Given that the group only came together last November, one must hope that their efforts are not coming too late to block Salvini's path to power.

If they can beat the odds and prevent the Lega from winning in Emilia-Romagna, that might just buy enough time for Italy's other political forces to regroup and pick up the pieces after the failed Five Star experiment.

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