Italians have started voting in regional elections; the center-left Democratic Party hopes to benefit from the rise of a new anti-populist movement. DW looks at how the Sardines began and where they can go from here.
In early November, far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini was gearing up for elections in the wealthy northeastern region of Emilia-Romagna. In previous decades, the party would have had little chance of success, given that the region has been run by the left since 1945. But after his party's mainstream rebrand in 2018, Salvini's all-out offensive on social media and his increased visibility during his stint as interior minister, the situation looked different. His party's campaign slogan, "Let's Free Emilia-Romagna" (from its leftist mindset), was making waves.
But suddenly, demonstrations began cropping up in cities across the region, filling town squares with tens of thousands of people — who call themselves "Sardines" for their square-packing prowess. The movement seemingly came out of nowhere and did not advocate any political agenda in particular other than calling out Salvini's values and insisting on more civility and decency in politics. By mid-December, 100,000 "Sardines" packed Rome's Piazza San Giovanni.
Sunday's election in Emilia-Romagna is a crucial test for Italy as a whole. In August, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stepped down with a blistering rebuke of Salvini's attempt to force snap elections, triggering a crisis — only to be called back by President Sergio Mattarella to form another cabinet sans Salvini, who now has his eyes set on a comeback as prime minister. The national government still comprises a shaky majority shared by the Democratic Party (PD) and the fading anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), the latter of which has been further weakened by Thursday's resignation of its leader, Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio. Now, the emergence of the Sardines is another step in Italy's rapidly evolving experiment in political movements.
The Sardines began last fall with a group of friends in Bologna — the capital of Emilia-Romagna and home of Europe's oldest university — looking for a way to make a statement against the encroachment of far-right populism on their region. The League leader, with his xenophobic and racist rhetoric, as well as his association with neo-fascists, neo-Nazis and ethno-nationalist groups, must not be allowed to march into Bologna uncontested, they said.
The group set up a Facebook invitation, "6,000 Sardines against Salvini," encouraging people to pack the city's Piazza Maggiore. The slogan: "Bologna non si lega" ("Bologna doesn't bind itself") — a play both on Lega, the Italian name of Salvini's League party, and on the origin of the word "fascism," which comes from "fascio," meaning "group," or literally "bundle." On November 14, around 15,000 people turned out in Bologna.
'Sardines' co-founder Mattia Santori, seen here in Florence on November 30, has focused on drawing people away from screens and back to physical gatherings
On November 21, the group issued a manifesto titled "Welcome to the Open Sea," which began with the words: "Dear populists, you have now realized the party is over." It went on to lay out the movement's principles and slam Salvini's record: "For years you have been spilling lies and hatred on us and our fellow citizens ... You have taken advantage of our good faith, our fears and difficulties to grab our attention. You have chosen to drown your political content under an ocean of empty communication."
By early December, the dissent had spread. Some 30,000 gathered in Florence, 25,000 a day later in Milan and 40,000 in Turin the following week. By December 14, the Sardines convened a crowd of 100,000 in Rome and further clarified the scope of their project. Of the six demands read by the group's most recognizable figure, Santori, only one dealt with specific policies: the cancellation of the security package passed by Salvini as interior minister.
Instead, the Sardines demanded the restitution of fundamental values to politics: an end to incitement and political aggression, an end to propaganda and a return to civility. From the political class listening, the Sardines demanded "that violence be excluded from the tone of politics and that verbal violence be treated like one would physical violence."
'A powerful message that doesn't need a filter'
The Sardines' approach has shed light on the crisis of values and form underpinning the populist far right's recent spread into the mainstream. From Poland, Hungary and Germany to the UK and France, such parties have run well-engineered digital operations promoting a discourse of violence and exclusion that has enabled the return of open racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and incitement — and that has seemingly not been met with any effective response.
The enormous success of these parties has come in part by using digital means to exploit what experts call the representational gap. At national and European levels, voters have witnessed various political operations that seem completely divorced from their interests and concerns. Both economic austerity policies and the delicate position of countries like Greece and Italy — whose locations place them at the forefront of the current migration debate — have opened up fertile ground to plant a narrative of xenophobia and racism. In both those countries, the far right has made massive gains.
A week ahead of the Emilia-Romagna elections, some 40,000 Sardines turned out in the capital, Bologna, to protest Salvini's League
The Sardines have addressed this divide by using an age-old tactic: bringing bodies out into the square. In December, Santori said during a television interview on Italy's public broadcaster RAI: "We decided to combat the populist beast by bringing out physical bodies ... because the physical body in the public square cannot be manipulated ... like polls and likes." Santori further explained that crowds of thousands are "a powerful message that doesn't need a filter."
Within the media, critics of the Sardines' project have mainly dismissed the movement as ineffective, disorganized, puerile and confused. Francesco Maria Del Vigo, a journalist with the right-wing Il Giornale, dismissed the Sardines on television as no more than a group of excellent event organizers. The newspaper's director, Alessandro Sallusti, circulated conspiracy theories about the Sardines being a covert operation of the center-left Democratic Party. Sardine founder Santori vehemently dismissed the accusations and took the journalist to task for a lack of professional ethics.
Those criticizing the Sardines have mainly focused on their intentional lack of a political program, claiming it belies a dearth of experience and mature political ideas. But the Sardines' apolitical stance may be precisely what presents a formidable challenge to supporters of Salvini, because it is much easier to attack the policy failures of governments and politicians than to attack those — like the Sardines — using the moral intuitions on which the Italian republic was founded.
And in this sense, the movement has taken on Salvini and his machine on their own terms. When the far-right firebrand and his political subsidiaries dispense moral denunciations of foreigners, homosexuals, supposed international Jewish cabals, socialists and globalists, the Sardines have responded by pointing out that these fears are inconsistent with honesty, kindness, civility, and a constitution that enshrines human rights, dignity and solidarity.
It is still unclear if the Sardines will turn into a political party. But if they do, they would probably not fare any better than have other protest parties across the continent. However, they could also invite their supporters to enter politics through established parties — including Salvini's League — and reform those political spaces from within. If successful, the echo will travel beyond the confines of Italian politics. Europe should be watching.