MILAN—The same day that left-wing groups and parties held an anti-fascist rally in Rome, protesting the apparent rise of the hard-right in Italy, the piazza in front of the Milan cathedral was filled with energized supporters of Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s League party. The party is best known for its xenophobia and its flirtation with the idea of exiting the euro—and Salvini happens to be campaigning tirelessly to become the leader of the Italian right in Italy’s national elections on Sunday.
The anti-fascist demonstration was a rare moment of unity of the left in the face of a consolidating right. The center-left Democratic Party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi, which has governed Italy—and not badly—for the past five years, is expected to draw only around 22 percent of the vote, not enough to form a government, a phenomenon that stems from the party’s internal weaknesses but has far greater implications. At Salvini’s rally in Milan, people held signs that said “Italians First,” the League’s motto, and waved separatist flags—from the wealthy Northern Italian regions of Lombardy and the Veneto, from Catalonia and Sardinia. The rise of the right is a pattern that’s played out in elections in several European countries, as establishment parties have failed to harness popular sentiments and more extreme groups have stepped in to offer their own strident visions of the future. The League, which has made a play for Italy’s neglected working class, is a sovereignist party that wants to send back immigrants and re-write European treaties. The lesson for Italy is that its messy politics are no longer local. They could wind up irrevocably destabilizing the European Union, of which it was a founding member.