PONTINDA, Italy (AFP) – Italy’s anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini, who is trailing the far-right’s Giorgia Meloni in the polls ahead of next week’s general election, sought on Sunday to galvanize his hard-right, populist, Eurosceptic base.
“This is Italy, full of hope and dreams and looking to the future,” Salvini told the crowd in the northern town of Pontida, which has for three decades been the venue for the annual mass gathering of the far right.
On Sunday it was awash with the flags representing Italy’s provinces and the banners of the General Labour Union (UGL), founded in 1996 from the ashes of the neo-fascist CISNAL union.
Salvini’s League party claimed 100,000 people had turned up, many bussed in to hear “Il Capitano”, drink beer and buy T-shirts bearing Salvini’s name and the slogan “Italians first”.
The League is trailing Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy (FDI), polling at 12 percent to the FDI’s 24.
Surveys suggest immigration is less of a concern for Italians than the rampant inflation squeezing already stagnant wages.
Salvini hailed the result of the Swedish general election, where voters “sent the left packing” and ushered in an alliance of the right and far right.
He conceded Americans had rejected former US president Donald Trump and his cry of “America first” in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. “That’s democracy,” he said.
Salvini said the League’s top six priorities were to curb soaring energy prices and develop nuclear power, give more decision-making powers to the regions, make tax and legal reforms, guarantee retirement at 41 years of service and stop immigrant boats landing on Italy’s shores.
He also proposed scrapping the TV license fee, defended women’s right to have an abortion and “traditional values” around gender and the family.
– ‘A lion entering the arena’ –
The League, FDI and former leader Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia form a coalition seen as favourites for the September 25 poll.
The League’s current estimated vote share of 12 percent would represent a notable decline from its performances in 2018 and 2019 as it participated in successive governments while FDI remained in opposition.
League activist Anna Valdotta, 67, told AFP some supporters had not forgiven Salvini and left, but she remained loyal to the man she compared to “a lion entering the arena”.
Stefano, a 27-year-old postman, praised Meloni’s leadership and said she had won votes rather than Salvini losing them.
The League has toned down its secessionist aspirations for Lombardy, focusing instead on what it calls a European Union dominated by Germany and France “that declares war on Italian farmers and fishermen”.
The mainstream left-wing Democratic Party (PD) held a rally in nearby Monza, where its leader Enrico Letta criticized the Italian right’s links to populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
PD is predicted to arrive in second place with 21 percent of the votes and has no major support among the left and center.
© Agence France-Presse