January 26 could mark the first time, since Mussolini’s regime, that the far-right score a victory in Italy’s left-wing stronghold of Emilia-Romagna. Its capital city, Bologna, has a proud, anti-fascist history. Yet Matteo Salvini’s far-right party, The Northern League, is currently polling only 2% behind the region’s incumbent Democratic Party (PD) president. A win for the League would be a remarkable shift, tantamount to the UK Conservatives winning a majority in Hackney. Italy, like the US and UK, is seeing tectonic transformations in its electoral landscape and consequently the emergence of a new political playing-field.
Who are the Sardines?
In November 2019, four Bologna flatmates in their early 30s urgently set up a Facebook event called ‘6,000 sardines against Salvini’. The far-right leader was due to host a rally in the Red City and Mattia Santori, a 32-year old political science graduate, ‘couldn’t sleep’ at the thought. He started organising. The aim was to encourage the reticent centre-left - ‘Italy’s other half’ - to turn up on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore on November 14 to outnumber the attendance of Salvini’s election rally taking place just a ten minute walk-away in the city’s Paladozza Stadium. The organisers encouraged people to arrive with their own cardboard costumes as part of a creative, non-violent ‘flash mob’. The metaphor of the fish, packed together like ‘jumping sardines in a shoal’, sought to promote peaceful unity against Salvini’s divisive anti-migrant rhetoric.
The metaphor of the fish, packed together like ‘jumping sardines in a shoal’, sought to promote peaceful unity against Salvini’s divisive anti-migrant rhetoric.
The turnout far exceeded expectations, with between 12-15,000 people of all ages presenting themselves. ‘Bologna non si lega!’ (‘we will not be bound’), was one of the chants, a pun on the party’s name ‘Lega Nord’ and the verb ‘legarsi’. The crowd would jump in waves, calling ‘chi non salta un fascista è!’ (who doesn’t jump is a fascist), a cry borrowed from Italy’s tribal football culture. This vibrated across the city, the protest eventually developing into student street parties around via del Pratello and Piazza San Francesco, the historically anarchist district. The anti-fascist anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ could be heard from a crowd that from time to time ignited red flares as the police kept careful watch. Over by Salvini’s high-security rally, fire brigades hosed down protestors congregating outside, pre-empting violence as Salvini and his supporters left the stadium.
The Bologna movement sparked reactions over the next few weeks with synchronised protests emerging across 33 Italian cities, including Modena, Milan, Florence, Turin, Naples and Palermo. The largest took place in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni with a turnout of 100,000. Protests were not even confined to Italy: they were reported in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, New York and London. Just two days after the UK election result, 600 people (predominantly Italian protestors) turned out to protest on Parliament Square and to denounce Salvini. A UK-based faction, ‘Le Sardine UK’, has formed to fight the normalisation of hate-speech and misinformation they see encouraged by Boris Johnson. (Salvini himself is a fan of Johnson, tweeting ‘Go Boris Go!’ on election day).
A UK-based faction, ‘Le Sardine UK’, has formed to fight the normalisation of hate-speech and misinformation they see encouraged by Boris Johnson.
Scepticism from the left
Yet the paradox of inclusive movements is their ability to divide. As the positive energy now starts to dissipate, attitudes towards the movement have become mixed, if not explicitly negative from some young leftists in Bologna. Opinions have begun to range from ben intenzionato (well-meaning), to insensato (pointless), to descriptions of the leaders as deficienti (morons). Meanwhile, the right-wing press accuses the movement of Communist ‘radical chic-ismo’, with Salvini supporters going so far as to call it a PD or George Soros conspiracy.
For the cynical, the Sardines represent just another ‘flash in the pan’ protest, in the vein of Italy’s anti-Berlusconi ‘i girotondi’ and ‘purple people’ movements in the late 1990s and 2000s. While these demonstrations effectively expressed discontent, they did not prevent Il Cavaliere (The Knight) from being re-elected to the European Parliament last year despite his long history of corruption. The reality is that the incumbent PD-Five Star government looks on the brink of collapse, while recent polls suggest that 48.2% of Italians would prefer ‘strong’, ‘messiah-like’ leadership. Cynicism and frustration amongst progressives is therefore unsurprising.
The radical left go further, describing the Sardines as the apotheosis of reactionism. They oppose its call to entrust power to ‘competent’ or ‘sensible’ political bodies, understood to mean centrist PD, EU technocrats or other bastions of the status quo. They would also deny the movement’s ‘youth status’ or ‘radical chic-ismo’, despite its creation by four leftist graduates. Instead they point to the number of older ‘boomers’ and families who came out, clad excitedly in fish-shaped cardboard fancy-dress, making the movement somewhat soft-centred, lacking in intellectual gravitas or bite and open to ridicule. These radicals are the ones who came out to protest the arrival of Roberto Fiore in Bologna last summer, the leader of fascist party Forza Nuova, said to be an orchestrator behind the 1980 Bologna bombing during the violent ‘Years of Lead’. They see the current political context through a revolutionary lens, regarding the moderate-left press with disdain when they congratulate the ‘bravi’ young people, fighting peacefully for a cause – just as they did Greta. For this demographic of Italian society, Il Potere al Popolo (Power to the People party) offers a better hope. The party has an anti-neoliberal, anti-racist platform and is composed of trade unions, civil society groups and student organisations.
Confusion as to the Sardine’s identity increased further as the movement rippled across Italy. What was originally an Emilia-Romagna-specific demonstration was mimicked across diverse territories, each with its own requirements. In Naples, a breakaway movement has formed called Le Sardine Nere (The Black Sardines) after migrant protesters were refused permission to speak at a Naples Sardine demonstration. It was decided that only ‘official’ Sardine organisers could speak. ‘The Black Sardines’ therefore was established to allow migrants, asylum seekers and second generation immigrants to speak for themselves on the issues of racism, residency permits and labour exploitation.
For some, the final dissolution of the Sardine’s objective came when Casapound, the Roman neofascist party (that perhaps most resembles the British EDL), provocatively joined the protests in Rome in response to a Sardine leader’s direct call for inclusion “for now anyone can join the protest, even someone from Casapound is okay, as long as he takes to the piazza like a Sardine”. Casapound leader, Simone di Stefano, has since tweeted mocking selfies eating sardines “I’m also in the piazza today (Venice) with the #Sardines (fried)”. Many progressives held the Sardines in contempt for allowing this inclusion to happen, while the original organisers from Bologna quickly apologised on social media, declaring it a misunderstanding and that neo-fascist groups will never be welcome.
The original organisers from Bologna quickly apologised on social media, declaring it a misunderstanding and that neo-fascist groups will never be welcome.
New disdain towards PD
The PD, born in 2007, evolved out of the left-wing to centre-left coalition that formed after the collapse of the two major post-war parties during the 1990s corruption scandals: the PCI (the Italian Communist Party) and the Christian Democrats. Today, the party is losing many of its historic voters from across the left-right spectrum, as globalization and the impact of 2008 begins to be felt.
Emilia Romagna itself presents a special microcosm of the various tensions within Italy’s political landscape, apparently subject to a creeping ‘Shy Salvinismo’. As a region it has the second highest intake of migrants. Yet despite Bologna’s anti-fascist history and its radical univeristy culture, the region itself is one of Italy’s wealthiest, with many areas undergoing significant gentrification. Alberto Cane, a financial adviser with Allianz Bank reported that “Bologna is a bit hypocritical… The old money, the entrepreneurs, the families who’ve inherited wealth, they’d like to vote for the League but don’t say so publicly.”
On the left, many will still remember the PD council’s eviction and bulldozing of the historic XM24 last summer, bringing tens of thousands out onto the streets in fierce protest. XM24 is an occupied, ‘auto-gestito’ (self-managed) social centre, which was until recently situated in a squat-like warehouse in Bolognina, north of the centre. This occupied space, in some respects, has come to represent one of the last bastions of Italy’s radical anti-fascist history. It looks outside of the inherently corrupt political system to create direct change in a local community, and remains loyal to the concept of anti-hierarchical, collective management central to Italy’s anarchic tradition. Among many cultural events, it has offered free Italian classes to migrants. A private housing company is developing ten luxury apartments where XM24 once stood, now relocated further out of the city. Salvini himself Twitter congratulated the PD council for their clear-out of the squat.
For many across the more extreme ends of the left-right spectrum then, PD has come to represent the enemy, riddled with hypocrisy. It has come to stand for a rich, globalised elite, an image further entrenched under Matteo Renzi’s leadership, with his ‘proper’ Florentine accent and aesthetic. Influenced by the neoliberal model of Blair’s New Labour, Renzi’s PD did not prioritise the immediate concerns of ordinary Italians, those most susceptible to the anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing populists. Nor did it speak to young people facing the second highest rate of unemployment in the Eurozone (at 35%) causing many to find work in the UK or Germany. Indeed, the numbers emigrating from Italy are higher than the numbers of immigrants arriving. Historically then, while the PD was once able to gather support from the centre-ground, who voted tactically for the lesser evil (il meno peggio), ‘holding their noses’ (turandosi il naso), just to block Berlusconi, now, many feel unable to do even this. It was this silent half of Italian society, lacking in any real political alternative, that the Sardines were seeking to mobilise onto the piazzas.
It was this silent half of Italian society, lacking in any real political alternative, that the Sardines were seeking to mobilise onto the piazzas.
So what now for the Sardines?
The four original leaders have been clear that they do not intend to form a political party. It is currently uncertain whether this impressive energy can be translated into anything more programmatic, paving the way for a parliamentary counter-attack to the far-right in the form of political alliances. So far in Europe, only Spain’s populist Podemos party has been able to convert leftist grassroots activism into parliamentary power. However, despite the diminishing momentum over the Christmas period, recent polls suggest that 40% of Italians view the Sardines, not the opposition parties, as Salvini’s biggest threat. In the meantime, Sardine events continue to be organised across diverse cities and countries, with a second protest organised in Bologna for exactly one week ahead of the Emilia-Romagna elections. This will take the form of a concert celebrating the region’s anti-fascist history.
The crucial question is how can the Sardines inform other left-wing movements? A tension still remains over the movement’s identity and specifically, its status as a ‘populist anti populist’ movement; a contradiction in terms. While many of its protestors oppose populism as a vehicle for political protest, others argue that it is currently the only effective strategy to take on the right, who have successfully postured themselves as the outsider ‘force for change’.
Political theorist Chantal Mouffe, a proponent of a left populism, has for years called for an ‘agonistic’ model of democracy. Conflict must be accepted as an inevitable and healthy part of any pluralistic process. The mistake of the Third Way politicians of the 1990s, was to deny this crucial fact, advocating instead ‘consensus politics’ where the move to the centre by both major parties only created a sense of political impotence. Consequently, the act of voting became a meaningless task for ordinary citizens, rendering them voiceless in the face of the neoliberal establishment that could congratulate itself for being ‘post-political’. What is important, according to Mouffe, is shifting the ‘enemy versus enemy’ narrative towards a more constructive and non-violent dialogue between ‘adversaries’. But can the Sardine movement create this dialogue?
Currently, the movement remains simplistically anti-Salvinismo in its identity, something it relied upon for its initial success in unifying the disparate elements of Italy’s left. It also called out the use of misinformation by Salvini in his electoral campaigns. How the movement can now move forwards, both inclusive and programmatic, remains to be seen. The Sardine’s short-term impact will be most obviously tested on January 26, at the Emilia-Romagna regional elections, where turnout will be crucial. In 2014, only 37.7% came out to vote – a historic low. If the League win here, they could in theory win anywhere, and the prospect of a snap general election will become much more likely. Salvini is expected to make huge gains, as Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have just done in the UK.
Sardine’s short-term impact will be most obviously tested on January 26, at the Emilia-Romagna regional elections, where turnout will be crucial. In 2014, only 37.7% came out to vote – a historic low.
Regardless of what happens and despite the various criticisms against them, the Sardine organisers must be credited for taking action. They have managed to raise large sums of money in support of their cause and more significantly, they have inspired hope among those frightened by the explicitly racist, anti-migrant, anti-LGTBQ+ rhetoric of the League, in Italy and beyond. Crucially, the movement has contradicted Salvini’s assertion that he alone represents the true ‘will of the people’.