Italy's anti-far right 'Sardines' rally ahead of regional polls

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Bologna (Italy) (AFP) - Thousands of people rallied Sunday in the northern city of Bologna, a leftist bastion targeted by the far right in elections this month whose fall could bring down the government in Rome.

They responded to the call of the "Sardines", a movement launched in November to fight anti-immigrant politician Matteo Salvini, a leading figure in Italy's previous coalition government.

According to the organisers, around 40,000 turned up for Sunday's event, a mix of music and speeches that was finishing Sunday evening with a rock and rap concert.

In the afternoon, crowds packed into Bologna's Piazza Otto Agosto carrying blue balloons and multicoloured version of the movement's now-familiar sardine symbol.

"We are here to say that an alternative exists," one of the movement’s co-founders, 32-year-old Mattia Santori, told journalists. Their hope was that their activities would translate into votes in the upcoming elections, he added.

Spokesman Lorenzo Donnoli told AFPTV: "I hope and believe that Salvini will lose and that will finally be a defeat that bring back serious politics."

Salvini is campaigning hard for a far-right victory in the January 26 elections in Emilia-Romagna. That could lead to the collapse of the government formed by the leftist Democrat Party and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement.

And that in turn could lead to national legislative elections, which Salvini fervently wants.

- 'Turning point for Italian politics' -

"This (regional election) will probably be a turning point for Italian politics," Santori told Sunday's edition of the daily Repubblica newspaper.

"We have shown that we can do politics without low blows," he added.

"We have already defeated populism. Salvini goes to the bars and does selfies. We fill up the squares."

The movement was a response to the growing strength in the north of the right-wing coalition led by Salvini's League party.

In late October, the League won a historic victory in regional polls in central Umbria, which had been a left-wing stronghold for half a century.

It was in Bologna on November 14 that the Sardines movement held its first ever rally, drawing 14,000 people to denounce what the say is Salvini's discourse of "hate and division".

While vocally opposed to Salvini's far-right policies, the movement has made a point of keeping its distance from Italy's left-wing parties.

The last polls registered before the pre-election polling ban came into force on January 11 suggested the League's candidate was running neck-and-neck with the current centre-left governor.