Matteo Salvini made a final campaign push on Friday ahead of an Italian regional election that has taken on national significance, with the leader of the anti-immigration League hoping victory could topple the country’s fragile coalition government.
Mr Salvini was due to hold six campaign rallies in Emilia-Romagna as his party tries to win control of the region — a stronghold of the Italian left since the second world war — on Sunday.
Polling published before a pre-vote blackout period showed that the contests between Stefano Bonaccini, the region’s incumbent Democratic party (PD) president, and Lucia Borgonzoni, a League senator who is fronting a rightwing coalition, was neck and neck.
Mr Salvini has demanded that if the PD loses a national election should be held, when he believes the League would win and he would become prime minister. His rightwing coalition is easily expected to win a second election on Sunday in the southern region of Calabria.
Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the PD, which shares power in Italy’s government with the Five Star Movement, has attempted to play down the impact of losing in Emilia Romagna on Italy’s coalition, but would be expected to come under significant internal pressure should his party lose.
In his drive to turn the regional vote on into a national referendum on the government Mr Salvini has used inflammatory tactics. He sparked widespread criticism in the Italian media after he rang the doorbell of a North African family in Bologna and asked: “Is your son a drug dealer?”
Mr Zingaretti accused Mr Salvini of deliberately inciting social tension in the region in order to mobilise his vote. “Salvini looks more and more like a plague-spreader from the 16th century who goes around shops and businesses spreading fear, hatred and despair,” he said during an event in Ferrara.
Mr Salvini has also had to contend with rival events held by large groups of so-called Sardine protesters — mainly young Italians who have staged rallies across the country against racism and intolerance, directed principally at the League leader.
Mr Salvini, an ex-interior minister and deputy prime minister, last summer brought down Italy’s last coalition between Five Star and his party and called for new national elections. However Five Star forged an unlikely partnership with the PD to form a new government in September, banishing Mr Salvini into opposition.
The current ruling coalition, fronted by prime minister Giuseppe Conte, has stumbled through several domestic crises since taking office, including the possible closure of Italy’s largest steel plant in the southern region of Puglia and the defection of several Five Star lawmakers to the League.
This week Luigi Di Maio, Five Star’s leader, stepped down after months of attacks against him from factions inside the party that are unhappy with its tie-up with the PD. The party is braced for poor results in both Emilia Romagna and Calabria.