When Alan Fabbri was growing up near the northern Italian city of Ferrara in the 1990s he engaged in an act of teenage rebellion that surprised his friends: he decided not to become a communist. As a 19-year-old student he signed up to the rightwing northern separatist party the Northern League, breaking not only with the political mainstream of his staunchly leftwing region of Emilia-Romagna but also going against the traditions of his own family, some of whom had fought as partisans against Nazi Germany.
Last year he ran as the now rebranded League candidate for mayor of Ferrara and won. The result left observers across Italy stunned. A city that had been controlled by Italian left since the end of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime — and for the majority of those 73 years by the Italian Communist party — had fallen to Matteo Salvini’s anti-migrant Italian nationalist movement.
Now with regional elections for the legislative assembly taking place this month in Emilia-Romagna, Mr Salvini, who since taking over in 2013 has remodelled the party from its northern separatist roots to become a pan-Italian rightwing party, is aiming to stage a huge upset by seizing control of an area traditionally regarded as the spiritual home of Italian socialism.
Opinion polls are showing the rightwing coalition candidate, the 43-year-old League senator Lucia Borgonzoni, may be able to smash through Italy’s red wall. She is neck and neck with the incumbent centre-left Democratic party (PD) president of the region, Stefano Bonaccini. PD-Five Star pact at risk Mr Salvini is bullish. “Let it be clear, we are going to win here,” he said on the campaign trail last week in Modena.
With Mr Salvini’s party far ahead of its rivals in national polls, new elections could then see the League leader sweep to power as Italy’s prime minister. “If the PD lose in Emilia-Romagna, it 100 per cent has the potential to bring down the national government and set Salvini on course to become prime minister,” says Daniele Albertazzi, an academic at the University of Birmingham and expert on the history of the League. “It really is too close to call.”
Victory in Emilia-Romagna would underline Mr Salvini’s rapid recovery since deciding last summer to launch the biggest political gamble of his career by bringing down his party’s then-coalition government from an Italian beach dressed in swimming trunks and with a Mojito in hand.
Soon after declaring that he was ending his alliance with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the League leader’s bid to force new national elections and become prime minister backfired. His spurned ex-partners struck up an unlikely pact with the PD, forming a new coalition government and banishing Mr Salvini back into opposition.
Since then, the national popularity of League has consolidated, with opinion polls consistently showing it is comfortably the most popular party in Italy. In October a centre right coalition led by the League won the central region of Umbria from the PD, with Mr Salvini immediately setting his sights on the bigger prize of Emilia-Romagna.
A talented and relentless campaigner, Mr Salvini’s return to opposition has suited him as he travels up and down Italy attacking the PD-Five Star coalition as it lurches from one political crisis to the next. A League victory in Emilia-Romagna, League politicians hope, should be enough to push Italy’s fragile coalition government over the edge.
“This coalition is already so fragile that the only thing gluing it together is their fear of Salvini,” says Erik Jones, professor of European studies and international political economy at the School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna. “If they lose it is hard to see how they make it through the spring.”
How did an area that for Italy’s entire postwar history has been regarded as the most dyed in the wool regione rosse — with a proud tradition of resistance to far-right politics — reach a point where Mr Salvini’s security and anti-migration platform could triumph? “What we are seeing is a process going on, which is the same in many others parts of Europe, where people are no longer politically loyal to the identity that defined their fathers and grandfathers,” Mr Albertazzi says.
Emilia-Romagna’s economy is performing strongly, posting one of Italy’s fastest regional growth rates in 2018, according to the region’s chamber of commerce, while its unemployment rate is almost half the national average.
This, however, has not stemmed broader national anger at economic insecurity and immigration, which Mr Salvini has tapped into. Giorgio Bennetti, a 35-year-old sweets seller with a stall in Ferrara’s centre, believes that many voters are willing to switch to the right to express a general political dissatisfaction. Local issues, such as the collapse of the Ferrara savings bank — 130,000 investors lost their savings — have also given voters reason to want to punish the PD, which was in charge both locally and nationally when the rescue happened in 2015.
“This is a protest vote, people don’t believe that the left is working for them anymore,” Mr Bennetti says. “My grandmother used to say that people have no problem changing their shirts from red to black if they need to.” The region also suffers from a sharp divide between the wealthy centre of Bologna, the region’s largest city and home to the oldest university in Europe, and poorer and more agricultural peripheral areas where the League has been steadily building support over the past decade.