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.
“I got my first League membership card when I was 19 . . . I was a black sheep,” the bearded and pony-tailed 41-year-old recalls, speaking from his office near Ferrara’s 14th century Estense castle. “On my mother’s side they were communists. One of my grandfathers was illiterate but on the table he still always had a copy of l’Unità” — the communist paper founded by the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s.
“Many here used to believe people could never vote for a rightwing party because of their family traditions, but that has changed. Many ex-communists now vote League as we defend workers. The left has taken this region for granted, they thought they had already won and they were shocked.”
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.
Mr Salvini is bullish. “Let it be clear, we are going to win here,” he said on the campaign trail last week in Modena. “From the 27th of January the world is going to change . . . Everyone here tells me that they used to vote communist but now they don’t any more because they are no longer communists, they are something else now”.
Should Ms Borgonzoni triumph, not only would it deal a hammer blow to the PD, it would also probably trigger a crisis in the ruling coalition with the Five Star Movement, which could threaten to bring down the government. 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 Johns Hopkins 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 rossa — 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.
Alessio Mare, a 39-year-old bookseller from Ferrara, believes that his generation feels little connection to the experiences of the past, and this has meant many have far fewer qualms with voting for the League than their elders.
“People don’t remember any more about the partisans and the war,” he says. “Before, many people would never have dreamt of voting for the right, now they have forgotten about all that.”
Giovanni Orsina, director of the LUISS School of Government in Rome, says the communism of Emilia-Romagna always had a distinctive regional flavour that was geared more towards small entrepreneurs rather than workers in large factories. This has meant that regional concerns over immigration and the economy are not overshadowed by ideological purity.
“These people were voting communist in the past, but this was because they saw the party as a defender of their local communities and traditions,” he says. “It was very pragmatic and not particularly ideological. There is a tradition in the region of very high level of public services. But now many of these shopkeepers and artisans believe that the League will better defend their interests than the Italian left.”
Stefano Caliandro, regional co-ordinator of the PD, argues that the party has fallen victim to “anti-politics” that has seen Italian voters move away from traditional parties in favour of the League. “We have to face the rightwing wave that has hit not only Emilia-Romagna but the whole of Europe.”
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 any more,” 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.
In the 2019 European elections, the League was the largest party in rural areas of Emilia-Romagna, winning 45 per cent of the vote in locations classed as “ultra periphery”, compared with less than 25 per cent for the PD in these areas, according to the Cattaneo Institute. In city centre areas, the League won 30 per cent of the vote — less than its 33.8 per cent total across the region — while the PD took 33.9 per cent, more than its 31.2 per cent regional total.
“This is a real town versus country divide,” says Mr Jones. “There used to be a sort of cultural communism, where people voted left because that was the part of society they came from. Now in Emilia-Romagna, as in other parts of Europe, it is not such a big jump for these people to vote for the right.”
Mr Fabbri says he thinks the result will hinge on voter turnout, with a higher turnout helping the League and hurting the PD.
“It is difficult to win, but the politics of Emilia-Romagna is that the League gets votes in the rural areas, in the city centres not so much,” he says. “If the turnout is high, we win. People who want change, they go out to vote”.
Whatever the result, the days of Emilia-Romagna as a communist stronghold are long gone. The Italian Communist party had by the 1990s effectively become a social democratic party, eventually being absorbed into the PD while a small rump of hardliners established fringe spin-offs.
Some activists, however, are still fighting on. Pavel Rizzo, 19, is out on a central street in Ferrara with his friend Matteo trying to sell copies of Lotta Communista, a communist newspaper, to passing shoppers. He joined the movement three months ago.
“We are Leninists,” he declares with a proud smile, while acknowledging that few of the passers-by are showing much interest in buying his newspaper, which on its front page has a dense essay entitled, “The theoretical-political and social fragility of the liberal order”.
Mr Rizzo says he wishes more people would become involved in communist politics like him, but it is an uphill struggle to get them engaged. “The world has changed,” he says.
Additional reporting by Davide Ghiglione in Rome
Coalition determined to avoid a new election
Since Italy’s new coalition government took power in September many in Rome have speculated about how long the unlikely alliance forged between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and centre-left Democratic Party (PD) can last.
It has been just over four months since Giuseppe Conte was sworn in for a second time as prime minister. His new coalition government has been bogged down by multiple crises and internal bickering. But though they were once sworn enemies, both parties appear resolute in their desire to avoid new elections.
Much of the political and business establishment remains fearful of the instability that new elections — and a likely victory for Matteo Salvini’s League — would bring.
Business leaders are concerned that should Mr Salvini become prime minister, his rightwing government would likely be in a position to decide who would become Italy’s next president — seen as the guarantor of the country’s social and political stability — when Sergio Mattarella’s term expires in 2022. For this reason, some expect the current coalition to cling on no matter what.
Yet more cynical observers also believe that a simple desire to keep hold of lucrative positions as members of parliament and senators is an equally important factor in ensuring they avoid fresh elections at any cost.
Polls indicate that a vote would more than halve the number of Five Star lawmakers, meaning many MPs would lose parliamentary roles that are among the highest paid in the EU.
“Many of these people did not have jobs before becoming MPs, and now have taken out big mortgages,” says one well-connected political adviser in Rome. “A new election would be a financial disaster”.