For Christmas, the new mayor of Mirandola, Alberto Greco, from the far-right League, gave crucifixes to the town’s schools and local government staff. The gesture inevitably sparked a row in the northern Italian town, with Greco’s foes from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), whom he ousted from office in last May’s election, dismissing it as “pure propaganda”.
“They said Italy is a secular country,” Greco told the Observer. “Yes it is, but crucifixes represent our traditions. The objective was to give importance to our values regarding family, children and responsibility.”
On the one hand, Mirandola is a construction site – parts of its historic centre have been cordoned off since an earthquake in 2012. On the other, it could be a harbinger as Matteo Salvini’s League and its smaller allies, Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, attempt to capture the liberal bastion of Emilia-Romagna in regional elections on Sunday, possibly precipitating Salvini’s return to national power.
“I have always voted for the left but this time I will change sides,” said one Mirandola resident, who asked not to be named – “as it is something many former socialists don’t like to admit”. He added: “We are fed up with the left and want change.”
Polls before the black-out period began put Salvini’s coalition candidate, Lucia Borgonzoni, neck-and-neck with the PD’s Stefano Bonaccini, the incumbent president of Emilia-Romagna. A defeat for the PD would destabilise its already fragile government with the Five Star Movement and could bring forward general elections that would favour the League, given its leading poll position.
“The elections in Emilia-Romagna are really important as not so long ago it was unthinkable that the region could even come close to being conquered by the right,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, a politics professor at the University of Bologna.
Other than change for the sake of change, it is difficult to find reasons why so many people are switching allegiances in a region that has been governed by various guises of the left since the end of the second world war.
Emilia-Romagna, home to parmesan cheese, Parma ham and carmaker Ferrari, is the second wealthiest region in Italy. It has low unemployment, a high number of women in the workforce, a rich cultural history and an enviable standard of social care. Mirandola is in the country’s single biggest wealth-producing area because of the high concentration of biotech firms and a robust agricultural sector.
With so little to gripe about, if a dramatic change does prevail then it could have been influenced by the stifling bureaucracy that people say was created by the PD. “There is this conviction that there will be fewer rules, that the politics of the League will be lighter,” said Pasquino.
While frustrations over the bureaucracy hampering Mirandola’s reconstruction and cutbacks in hospital services contributed to Greco’s success in May, they weren’t overriding factors.
“Being among the people and going to the peripheries helped my campaign a lot,” he said. “This is why the League is winning; the left lost contact with ordinary people.”
Salvini, whose image is omnipresent on posters and flyers across the town, swung by several times as part of an energetic campaign that featured his usual rhetoric of defending Catholic values and repelling unwanted immigration.
But there was little Christianity in evidence when he stomped up to a flat on the outskirts of Bologna last week and, egged on by laughing supporters, rang the bell of a Tunisian family’s home to ask them over the intercom if they were drug dealers. Greco dismissed the stunt as “a joke”, one that achieved its desired aim of attracting attention, and insisted the party is not racist.
Salvini has also shared photos of himself throughout the campaign, eating tagliatelle bolognese, kissing blocks of parmesan cheese and, in two different images on Thursday, posing with African immigrants.
Giancarlo Giorgetti, the League’s deputy leader, who was in Mirandola last week, said: “Salvini has conducted his campaign in the way he knows best – among the people. He has clear ideas and the courage to take them forward, whereas others don’t have any clear ideas and are just against Salvini.”
But it is the resistance to Salvini that could, in this close race, mean victory is not such a sure thing. The Sardines, a movement that emerged in Bologna in November in reaction to Salvini’s threat to “liberate” Emilia-Romagna from the left, has mobilised thousands to its demonstrations across the country. “The real match is between the Sardines and Salvini,” Mattia Santori, one of the movement’s founders, said.
Lara Cavicchioli, Alberto Da Como and Danial Eshragh, manning the PD’s information booth in Mirandola, said there were many undecided voters. “We are in this situation because Emilia-Romagna has had it so good, all due to good governance,” said Cavicchioli. “But the League is trying to deny this, giving the impression that the region needs liberating.”
Da Como said that Greco had simply “inherited the diamonds” of the town’s previous administration. “And if the League wins in Emilia-Romagna, with their zero capacity, it will take us backwards.”
Eshragh was more philosophical. “The rightwing wave is happening all over the world,” he said. “But it won’t last. Yes, they might win here on Sunday, but once the wave of nationalism has passed, it will be time up for the League.”