MILAN – Matteo Salvini is betting that the road to Rome runs through Emilia-Romagna.
The right-wing populist leader is campaigning hard for his League to take control of the wealthy northern region that has been a left-wing stronghold since World War II. While winning Emilia-Romagna would be heavy on symbolism, Salvini’s real goal is to use a victory to destabilize the weak coalition in Rome, and take power nationally.
‘’If Salvini will win in Emilia-Romagna, we will have a governmental crisis,’’ said Emiliana De Blasio, a professor of sociology at Rome’s LUISS University.
Salvini has pulled out all the folksy stops to connect with voters in the region, centered around the city of Bologna, which beyond a reputation as the center of Italy’s red belt is also renowned for its food and hospitality. Salvini has sniffed a Parmesan cheese wheel, kissed a salami and hugged the statue of a fictional communist mayor, Peppone, the leftist foil to the town’s priest Don Camillo in beloved comic stories and films about the fraught political healing process in postwar Italy.
“I bet Peppone would vote for the League,” Salvini wrote earlier this month under an Instagram photo of himself hugging the bronze statue in Brescello, a town of 5,600 where the League has been gaining strength. “You have no idea how many old communists have told me in these days: Those from the Democratic Party prefer bankers to workers. This time I am voting for you!”
Despite favorable job ratings and a strong local economy, Democratic Party incumbent regional president Stefano Bonaccini has found himself in the role of underdog in the vote. His opponent is a little-known League politician, Lucia Borgonzoni, who lost the 2016 Bologna mayoral race.
But it is Salvini, the firebrand former interior minister, who has been the face of the League’s campaign. The League’s growing strength in Emilia-Romagna was already clear in last year’s European elections, when it was the top-vote getter, beating the Democratic Party by 2½%.
The League's strength has not gone unchallenged. A growing grass-roots movement, the Sardines, was born in Bologna in an effort to counter what they see as Salvini’s anti-institution, anti-migrant rhetoric. Some 40,000 Sardines gathered in Bologna this weekend in a bid to halt Salvini’s rise.
“I hope that what comes out is a strong desire to keep the right out of Emilia-Romagna,” said Luisa Volpelli, a Sardine protester, in Bologna. “They say we are not doing well, that we are fed up with our government. No, we are one of the regions that is doing the best in Italy. We want to keep out these people that throw mud and tell lies.”
Salvini prompted fresh outrage in recent days when he rang the intercom at the home of a 17-year-old Tunisian, accusing the teen of being a drug pusher. The teen is threatening to sue for defamation, while angry reactions have come from Tunisia.
In what is widely seen as a bid for populist voter sympathy, Salvini also instructed his party to vote in favor of lifting his immunity to face trial for not allowing a migrant ship to disembark in Italy last summer.
While a League victory cannot prompt the government to fall automatically, the 5-Star Movement-Democratic Party coalition that was put together to block Salvini’s clumsy power grab in the summer remains shaky and could fall on any number of pretexts. It has failed, for example, to come to decisions on a number of outstanding industrial issues — like how to save Alitalia, the future of a failing steel mill in the south and whether to revoke a lucrative highway management contract with a private firm following the 2018 fatal bridge collapse in Genoa.
The coalition has been further weakened by Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio’s resignation this week as political leader of the 5-Star Movement — a casualty of the movement’s waning popularity with voters, poor performance in other recent regional elections and a string of defections by its own lawmakers.
The outcome of Sunday’s vote in Emilia-Romagna could well turn on whom 5-Star voters back — left with a weak last-minute candidate of their own — and how strong turnout is in rural areas where support for the League is especially strong.
“A government afraid of its own shadow may go into political meltdown next week," said Wolfango Piccoli of the consultancy Teneo. And even if the government manages to hold on, he said, the Democratic Party itself would suffer a major blow “to its credentials as a reformist force and an effective local administrator.”
The League is also expected to win another regional vote on Sunday, in Calabria, which Salvini briefly represented as senator.
Trisha Thomas in Rome and Francesco Sportelli in Bologna contributed to this report.