Italy’s Sardine Send Salvini Packing from Emilia-Romagna

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By Zoe Mize

BOLOGNA, Italy – On 26 January, the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, the home of Ferrari cars, Parmesan ham and SAIS Europe’s Bologna campus, held a hotly contested regional election. Right-wing Lega (League) candidate Lucia Borgonzoni lost the regional presidency to Democratic Party (PD) incumbent Stefano Bonaccini by a margin of 7%. A possible League victory threatened to upset the political legacy of Emilia-Romagna, which has been dominated by the left since the end of the Second World War.  

League Party secretary, Matteo Salvini, has successfully peddled an Italian nationalist movement, winning eight of the most recent regional elections. A win in Emilia-Romagna would have secured enough support for the League to destabilize the government in Rome, led by Giuseppe Conte, allowing Salvini to take the role of Prime Minister. The current national government operates under a shaky coalition forged between the PD and the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star) after Salvini controversially broke his party’s own coalition with Five Star in a failed effort to trigger early elections. 

The League platform, peddling euroscepticism, libertarianism and anti-immigration policies, arguably run a populist agenda. This platform has been successful in rural towns and villages, where locals feel neglected by the PD and are comfortable switching party lines to voice their frustrations. Emilia-Romagna has largely been an exception to this trend due to the continued stability of its PD-led government. Social services are well-maintained, and the unemployment rate of 5% is half the national rate. 

Salvini campaigned aggressively for the League in Emilia-Romagna. He was often met with crowds enthusiastically chanting ‘Matteo, Matteo,” and he filled his Instagram with photos of him enjoying local delicacies. Salvini’s seizure of the spotlight, however, overshadowed candidate Borgonzoni. His influence on campaigning activities became a liability when he knocked on the door of a Tunisian family in the Pilastro neighborhood of Bologna to accuse their 17-year-old of dealing drugs. 

“I just think he went that step too far,” stated Adjunct Professor of Constitutional Law Justin Frosini at the Bologna Institute of Policy Research (BIPR) seminar held on January 30th, 2020. 

One week before the elections, protestors gathered at Bologna’s Piazza dell’Otto Agosto. The protests were part of the grassroots Sardine movement, headed by Mattia Santori. The movement was founded in Bologna in November 2019 as a response to the right-wing rhetoric of Salvini. Since November, rallies have been held throughout Italy, with protestors packing piazzas by the thousands. More than 40,000 participated in the January 19th protests, which was accompanied by musical performances from popular artists such as Marracash and Afterhours. 

Sahar Priano, a Masters candidate in International Development at the University of Bologna, attended the protests. 

“I thought that was the most intelligent ploy by the Sardine and by the musicians themselves to attract the Italian youth,” Priano said; adding that locals might otherwise be politically indifferent. “You can’t escape, so you have to stay for all these political lectures, essentially.”

The anti-establishment Sardine movement, though organized against Salvini’s right-wing populism, resists alignment to any existing Italian political parties. Instead, the protest is focused on promoting liberal ideals, such as increased democratic participation and social inclusion. Voter participation in the January 26th election did see a nearly 100% increase from 2014. The political ambiguity has raised questions about the future of the movement. Five Star similarly began in Bologna and coalesced into the largest party in parliament by 2018. Santori, however, has expressed reluctance about consolidating the Sardine into a political party of its own. 

Professor Justin Frosini cautioned against attributing the triumph of Bonaccini solely to the Sardine. While the Sardine were successful in mobilizing the Italian youth, the League lost the Emilia-Romagna presidency for many reasons, from the success of the PD government to the weakness of Borgonzoni as a candidate. He argues, this is not to be considered a resounding victory for the Italian left, though the results of the elections can be safely interpreted as a setback for Matteo Salvini and his League. 

Priano, for her part, understands that political movements come and go rapidly in Italy. As to whether the Sardine will continue long-term, she says, “I think that it will depend on the government, it will depend on Salvini, it will depend on what comes next.”

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