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World

Regional Elections In Italy May Be A Bellwether For A Far-Right Party

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a reason local elections in two Italian regions on Sunday are drawing international attention. They're a test of strength for Italy's national government and for the far-right League Party. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the League could win control of a region that's been under leftist control for 75 years.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The northern region of Emilia-Romagna is home to Parmesan cheese, prosciutto and luxury car makers. It's a poster child for good government and social services. At 5%, unemployment is half the national average. And yet polls suggest the incumbent Democratic Party governor is running neck-and-neck with the right-wing candidate.

And the League Party secretary, Matteo Salvini, has been campaigning nonstop. Saturday, he came to Maranello - home of Ferrari sports cars - cheered by enthusiastic middle-aged supporters like Silvana Valdinocci. She embraces his Italians-first slogan and anti-migrant policies.

SILVANA VALDINOCCI: (Through interpreter) I'm proud of him. He loves Italians. Those people in power today don't respect us. They hate Italians. They pass laws against Italians. But Matteo Salvini is fighting for us.

(CHEERING)

POGGIOLI: Salvini makes his entrance wearing a red baseball cap with Ferrari's prancing horse logo. He moves through the exuberant crowd, shaking hands, pausing for selfies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTEO SALVINI: (Through interpreter) Our beautiful victory here on January 26 will be historic. It will totally change this country. With our victory, you will evict the government in Rome and send the Democratic Party packing.

POGGIOLI: Last fall, in a rare political miscalculation, Salvini walked out of the national governing coalition, hoping to trigger early elections. Instead, the Democratic Party took the League's place in the Cabinet. In a bid to return to national power, Salvini mobilized his social media accounts with non-stop promotions of Emilia-Romagna products - tortellini and local wine - all the while pushing his anti-immigrant and anti-European Union themes. Professor Filippo Taddei of Johns Hopkins University in Bologna explains Salvini's message.

FILIPPO TADDEI: I can trust only myself. I should not be inclusive. I should close the country. I should protect my border, my society, the root of my country, you know.

POGGIOLI: Salvini and his right-wing allies have won eight regional elections since mid-2018. He's betting another league victory would destabilize the Rome government. That alarmed a group of 30-somethings who in November mobilized an anti-Salvini flash mob in Bologna. This was the birth of the Sardines, a liberal grassroots movement promoting diversity and civility. Since then, tens of thousands of people have rallied against Salvini, packing squares across the country tightly, like a can of sardines. On Sunday, some 40,000 people of all ages gathered in Bologna.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Many wore toy fish on their heads while organizers welcomed the Sardines into an open sea. Pensioner Roberto Martelli was pleased the Sardines ignited a resistance movement.

ROBERTO MARTELLI: They were able to take the people out from their home. Before, there seems there was no participation for nothing.

POGGIOLI: Mattia Santori is one of the movement founders. He contrasts the Sardines' strategy with that of the populist League.

MATTIA SANTORI: On the digital side, the populists is really strong. They have great organization. They have good money. They know how to do this job. But we also know that we are really strong on the street, on the square. So it's kind of this war between reality - physical reality and digital reality.

POGGIOLI: A war in which these young activists are telling voters that on Sunday, they can choose an alternative to populism.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Bologna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.