Matteo Salvini's bid for return to power in key Italian vote contested by new 'Sardines' protest group

Nick Squires
In a protest organised by the Sardines in Modena, thousands of supporters crammed into a piazza

As Matteo Salvini plots a return to power after a botched bid to become prime minister in the summer, he faces a vocal new adversary – a brand new grass-roots political movement nicknamed the Sardines.

They have staged large demonstrations in recent days in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, which Mr Salvini hopes to wrest from the centre-Left at elections in January.

The region has been a bastion of the centre-Left for decades and for The League to win it would be a huge coup, boosting his chances of success at the national level.  

The nascent group, launched on social media by four activists, claims it has attracted so many followers that when they gather in piazzas they are crammed in like sardines.

On Monday night, around 6,000 supporters braved pouring rain to stage a demonstration in a large piazza in the historic city of Modena, a counter-point to a visit to the city by Mr Salvini.

“We’re tired of the politics of hate,” Samar Zaoui, a university student of Tunisian origin who came to Italy when she was one, told an Italian newspaper. “I’m fed up with the populist rhetoric which is always trying to make a target out of refugees, migrants.”

That followed a similarly boisterous protest in a piazza in Bologna last week, which was also organised as a riposte to a visit by the leader of The League.

Supporters made posters featuring images of sardines

On both occasions, protesters waved cardboard cut-outs of sardines, yelled anti-Salvini slogans and sang “Bella Ciao”, a folk song that was adopted as anthem of the anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi resistance by partisans during the Second World War.

The “sardines” are opposed to the hard-Right brand of populist nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by The League, which despite being in opposition remains Italy’s most popular party, with more than 30 per cent of voter support.

It was in power with the Five Star Movement until August when Mr Salvini pulled the plug in what turned out to be a botched attempt to force a general election in which he had hoped to be elected the leader of a hard-Right government.

Matteo Salvini, seen here visiting flooded Venice, hopes to take Emilia-Romagna from the centre-Left Credit: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

“The whole of Europe should be watching us because this is the end of populism,” said Mattia Santori, one of the four activists who spawned the Sardines in Bologna.

Although centre-Left in inspiration, the movement appears to be disenchanted with the established Democratic Party and protesters were told not to come bearing party political flags, banners or badges.

Mr Salvini has been touring the region in support of the League’s candidate for governor, Lucia Borgonzoni, who was a junior culture minister in the last government.

While in power, she was caught up in a cultural heritage row after threatening to cancel the loan of several works by Leonardo da Vinci to the Louvre in Paris, insisting they should stay in Italy.

She said the loan was not in Italy’s interest, pointing out that “Leonardo is Italian; he only died in France.”

She downplayed the challenge posed by the Sardines. “The fact that they lean to the Left is indisputable, so they are not going to be taking votes away from us.”

The League is also waiting to see whether the upstart movement will endure, given that the regional election in Emilia-Romagna is on January 26, two months away.

Mr Salvini hopes to build on his triumph last month in Umbria. Like Emilia-Romagna, it was traditionally a Left-leaning region but fell to a Right-wing coalition led by The League.

The League-led alliance ended 50 years of Left-wing governance in Umbria, sounding alarm bells for the national coalition, an uneasy and fractious partnership between Five Star and the Democratic Party.