In 2008 Virginio Caparvi made what appeared an odd choice for a 26-year-old from Umbria considering a future in politics. He joined the Northern League, then a fringe separatist party with just about enough members in Mr Caparvi’s historically leftwing part of central Italy to fill a barroom.
But 11 years on the League has lost its northern tag; Matteo Salvini, its leader, has come to dominate the Italian right; and Mr Caparvi, now a member of parliament for the party and its regional co-ordinator in Umbria, is on the brink of a historic victory.
In regional elections on Sunday polls indicate that a rightwing coalition fronted by Donatella Tesei, a League senator, may wrest control away of Umbria from the left for the first time since the 1970s.
If the League does emerge triumphant, the result will underline how Mr Salvini’s pivot away from northern separatism to hard right anti-migrant nationalism has transformed his party into a pan-Italian movement. It will also provide a reality check to those who hoped the ejection of the League from national power in August and the formation of an alternative coalition including the centre-left Democratic party (PD), would shift Italian politics.
“The left has disappointed people here,” Mr Caparvi said, in the same hotel in Perugia where he attended a fledgling League meeting with about 40 people back in 2008. “The left used to be focused on the most vulnerable, that is not true any more. The League is now the party that knows how to speak to the people on the fringes of society, the left cannot reach them.”
Even though Mr Salvini brought down his party’s national coalition with the Five Star Movement — which teamed up with the PD instead — polls show the League remains Italy’s most popular party. If elections were held now a coalition of the League and its smaller allies, the post-fascist Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s faded Forza Italia, could command close to 50 per cent of the national vote.
Sunday’s election is also a snapshot of the PD’s struggles. Umbria is not the only region it once took for granted and is now at risk of losing: defeat in regional elections early next year in Emilia Romagna, the cradle of the Italian left, would represent a crushing blow to the party.
This year the party’s Umbrian regional secretary and other senior officials were arrested after a probe into corruption in a hospital in Perugia. The scandal inflicted huge damage to the reputation of the PD, which had already started to lose control of important local councils.
Arnaldo Chiasso, a 60 year-old public sector administrator living outside Orvieto, believes the hospital scandal has shattered already wavering faith in the ability of the PD to solve the problems of a region struggling with Italy’s high unemployment and low economic growth. Unemployment for Umbrian workers was 10.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year, according to Italy’s national statistics office, slightly above the national average.
“This was always a ‘red region’, but I think this time the League will win,” Mr Chiasso said. “The scandal has caused many people to change their votes. But the left hasn’t dealt with local problems like healthcare, fixing the roads. Every year there is less work, less money, less opportunities. Lots of young people have left because of this”.
In an attempt to recover from the hospital scandal the PD decided it would not present its own candidate for the Umbrian election, but instead back an independent “civic candidate”, the local businessman Vincenzo Bianconi, alongside Five Star.
It is the first time that the parties, once sworn enemies, have backed a joint candidate in an Italian regional election. It means the result in Umbria will be a sign of their two-month old coalition government’s popularity across Italy.
Walter Verini, a PD MP and the party’s election co-ordinator in Umbria, rejects this, arguing that the election outcome will reflect difficult local circumstances rather than being a national test.
“Yes, this region was traditionally leftwing but this has been changing for some time,” he says. “We have lost a lot of councils because of our problems here. The League has simply profited from these problems. The pact we have made with Five Star is because of the local situation, it does not reflect the national situation.”
Yet Martina Mescolini, a 37 year-old PD candidate for the Umbrian regional parliament, accepts that Mr Salvini’s blunt “Italians first” anti-migration message has cut through to voters across the region.
She said the PD had struggled like all European centrist parties to articulate a message to combat this. “It is a very complex issue that needs a pan-European response,” she says. “This is hard to communicate.”
Government statistics suggest non Italian citizens — among them many from elsewhere in the EU — make up about 10 per cent of Umbria’s population. Mr Chiasso believes Umbria’s voters will be motivated as much by fears about immigration as by anger at the PD.
“It is not racism to be worried about immigration,” he says. “The economy needs to be fixed for Italians. So many people here don’t have a job, and they feel that people coming from outside are taking from the economy. This is what has created a situation where Salvini can win in Umbria.”