By Susy Hodges
Voters in two Italian regions went to the polls on Sunday in local elections that could help propel far-right, opposition leader Matteo Salvini to national power.
Both regions are currently controlled by the center-left and while polls have long predicted a win for the right in Calabria, the result in the north is far less certain and politically much more significant.
One of Italy’s wealthiest regions, Emilia Romagna is home to the Ferrari sports car and Parmesan cheese and has been a left-wing stronghold for the past 75 years.
The leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, has spent weeks relentlessly campaigning in the area. He is hoping that an upset victory for his League party and its rightwing partners would so destabilize the coalition government in Rome that it could even collapse.
Salvini’s anti-immigrant, anti-European message has resonated in the region during the campaign, especially in the smaller towns and cities, as has his promise to cut taxes.
Underscoring his confrontational style of politics, Salvini caused a stir last week by ringing the interphone at the apartment of a family of Tunisian migrants and, in front of TV cameras, asked if they were drug dealers.
Salvini served as interior minister until last August, when, in a rare miscalculation, he walked out of government with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement
His growing popularity was underscored in last May’s European parliament elections where the League triumphed across Italy becoming the nation’s biggest party with over 34 percent of the votes.
The PD’s candidate in Emilia Romagna Stefano Bonaccini is the incumbent president and is hoping to win Sunday’s elections for his track record in the region which boasts low unemployment figures.
The run-up to these elections has also seen the rise of a grass roots anti-populist movement called the Sardines. It was born just a few months ago but has fast become a national symbol of protest against Salvini’s far-right party especially among the youth.
The PD has rejected suggestions that Sunday’s vote is a de-facto referendum on its often fractious coalition. It remains hopeful that the high approval rating of its incumbent governor Stefano Bonaccini will eventually win the day. But the most recent opinion polls published just before the elections showed the League and the PD’s candidates running neck and neck.