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Italy’s Sardines Challenge Salvini

As right wing League Party head Matteo Salvini campaigns in critical regions ahead of regional elections, a grassroots movement is proving his popular platform isn’t fully uncontested

In Italy, the expression “packed like sardines” has now taken on a political meaning.

On November 12th, four friends decided to try to outnumber League Party head Matteo Salvini’s supporters at a rally in the Emilia-Romagna region just north of Florence in an effort to protest Salvini’s far-right politics.

Attendees, mobilised through social media site Facebook, were asked to avoid bringing flags, political parties, or insults to the main square of Bologna. Banners or posters could only feature sardines. One organiser, Mattia Santori, stated, “To those who shout the loudest, we are responding by being as silent as fish, but in a shoal, packed one next to the other. There are more of us than them.”

The Sardines’ goal was to fill the 5,700-capacity sports arena used for the rally. As rain poured down on the square, organisers saw more supporters than they had originally planned on – thousands more. According to founder Andrea Garreffa, “In the end, between 12,000 and 15,000 people came. There were people of all ages, packed together like sardines in the rain. Their presence was a message of opposition to the hate that the far-right is trying to bring to Emilia-Romagna.” Santori expressed, “The sardines are simply looking to halt the drift toward populism…We are trying to wake up a people tired of seeing their values trampled underfoot.”

In a country that has struggled to recover after the economic crisis and has also suffered political instability in recent years, the populist slogan “Italians First” is undeniably appealing. Campaign promises assure citizens that a right wing vote ensures that the needs of Italians will be taken care of before those of refugees and migrants, and that traditional values no longer serving a modern Italy would fall by the wayside.

Six days after the first protest, 7,000 people squeezed into another local square – this time in Modena. In just a few weeks’ time, the Sardines have turned into a fully-fledged, anti-right movement. Rallies are planned for Palermo, Reggio Emilia, Perugia, Rimini, and even New York, with more anticipated in the coming months.

Salvini’s reaction to protestors has been one of dismissal and disdain, tweeting “Scratch a sardine and you will find a PD’er”, in reference to the centre left, and currently ruling, Democratic Party.

In Modena, Salvini even said “Next time, I’ll go to the square with them.” But so far, the right wing leader doesn’t seem to have found a way to stifle protestors, and has avoided calling for the same kind of rallies he held in past regional election – possibly due to fear of drawing counter-demonstrations. At a recent book launch in Rome, he told reporters, “Life is very nice, looking at Google all day to work out where I will be and then to come and protest against me. But I have faith we will win in Emilia-Romagna.”

This region is crucial to Salvini’s strategy. Since World War II, it has been ruled exclusively by leftist parties, but Salvini hopes to “free Emilia-Romagna” in the upcoming January 26th vote. So far, he has won all local elections held in 2019, including a historic victory in Umbria, which has been governed by the centre left for half a century. Salvini’s triumph in the region has led pollsters and politicians alike to question how long the national government in Rome will survive.


In a country that has struggled in recent years due to economic and political instability, the populist slogan “Italians First” seems to be undeniably appealing. Right-wing League Party head Salvini has capitalized on the sentiment, so far winning all local elections held this year. Copyright: Tinxi / Shuttershock.com

A Turbulent Time in Italian Politics

Last August, Italy experienced political strife when a fall out occurred between the parties of the governing coalition, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as a result.

President Sergio Mattarella was called upon to form a new government. If Mattarella was unable to establish a majority then snap elections would be held – an outcome desired by Deputy Prime Minister and League Party head Salvini, who aimed to force elections, earn more votes, and govern without a proper coalition.

But Salvini was left behind when the 5-Star Movement and the Democratic Party came together at the last moment in an alliance and called on Conte to resume his position as Prime Minister.

Since unifying, the coalition has experienced clashes and some question the government’s stability and viability. By contrast, the anti-migrant, anti-tax League’s recent opinion polls show that it is Italy’s most popular party, holding about 30 percent of the vote and continuing to garner support in regions with historically strong leftist politics. A Salvini victory in the Emilia-Romagna region would be enormously impactful and would serve to challenge the PD/5-Star coalition’s strength.

In the weeks – and protests – to come, it remains to be seen if the Sardines’ grassroots movement will be enough to stave off a potential right wing win.

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Katherine Whittaker

Katherine is an Athens-based writer and videographer. Formerly the digital editor at SAVEUR Magazine, she now freelances, focusing mostly on the intersection of food and politics or culture. She earned a dual Masters degree in journalism and European studies from New York University.

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