Italy’s Answer to Populism

A grassroots anti-populist movement is challenging Matteo Salvini in Italy. Can its model be emulated elsewhere?

People with signs shaped like sardines gather in Italy.
"Sardines" gather in Bologna, Italy to demonstrate against Matteo Salvini. (Guglielmo Mangiapane / Reuters)

For months, a burgeoning grassroots movement has staged flash mobs across Italy to express opposition to the country’s populist firebrand, Matteo Salvini. Its ability to pack city squares with tens of thousands of people—like sardines, as the group has come to be known—has offered one of the most visible examples of anti-populist mobilization in Europe.

Spontaneously mobilizing scores of people to condemn Salvini’s rhetoric on issues such as immigration and the European Union is part of the group’s challenge; halting his seemingly meteoric rise is another. Salvini has proved a seismic force in Italian politics, going from the leader of the right-wing League, once a small, regional party, to Italy’s deputy prime minister. Despite his failures—the League was booted from government last year—Salvini has been resilient: His party is currently running neck and neck with the ruling center-left Democratic Party in the liberal stronghold of Emilia-Romagna, which will hold regional elections Sunday.

The outcome of that election is already being linked to the influence of the Sardines, who are widely seen as an anti-populist block to Salvini’s success. Should Salvini win in Emilia-Romagna, his opponents fear that it could bring about the collapse of the country’s fragile governing coalition and snap elections—an outcome that would give Salvini another chance to seize power. Should he lose, it will signal that a grassroots anti-populist movement of this kind is possible. In the second scenario, the question that will undoubtedly follow is whether the Sardines’ playbook can be emulated elsewhere.

To identify who the anti-populists are, it helps to understand what makes a populist—a question that has been the subject of much scholarship and debate in recent years. Though populist leaders come in a variety of forms and contexts, they share some notable similarities. As Catherine Fieschi, the director of the Global Policy Institute at Queen Mary University of London, writes in Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism, these include a claim to defend the true interests of (often homogenous) “real people” against the interests of elites, including mainstream political parties and the media. For right-wing populists such as Salvini—as well as Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Marine Le Pen in France, to name a few—this has manifested in nativist rhetoric, calls for tighter immigration controls, and the discrediting of political opponents as inherently “illegitimate.”

What has been less clearly defined, however, is who the anti-populists are. In some countries, such as Germany, the primary opposition to populist parties such as the far-right Alternative for Germany and the far-left Die Linke is the mainstream groups they have pitted themselves against. In others, there are new, nonmainstream alternatives. Take, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron and his La République En Marche movement, which swept to power a year after its founding: Though led by Macron, a former minister in Socialist President François Hollande’s government, En Marche was regarded as being outside of France’s traditional two-party system, allowing the movement to distance itself from the anti-establishment rhetoric of Macron’s chief rival, Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (or as it was known at the time, the National Front).

In Britain, the erstwhile Conservative minister turned independent mayoral candidate Rory Stewart declared his own ambition to start a new centrist movement—one that he told me could follow Macron’s En Marche model. Stewart said he would combat “populist extremes” by better engaging the electorate in the business of governing through citizens’ assemblies and, in doing so, undermine the populist narrative of elite betrayal. Unlike Macron, though, he doesn’t aim to do this at the national level, hoping instead to build his new centrist movement from the bottom up—or, in his case, from London city hall.

The Sardines, of course, don’t resemble Macron’s En Marche or Rory Stewart. They are a grassroots movement—not a political organization or candidate. Like many protest movements around the world, the Sardines function without a clear hierarchy. They aren’t affiliated with a political party and, according to one of their founders, they have no ambition to become one. The group’s sole stated aim is to reassert values of tolerance and moderation into the public square as part of an “anti-fascist, pro-equality” movement that speaks out against racism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment. But this hasn’t stopped voters from viewing them as a de facto opposition: One poll found that 40 percent of Italians regard the Sardines as a greater threat to Salvini than his actual political opponents. Their success hasn’t escaped the notice of Salvini either. Though the League leader has previously expressed appreciation for the group—telling one interviewer that “the more people [who] participate, the better”—he has also taken to criticizing it on Twitter, stating his preference for kittens. (His reason: They eat sardines.)

If what underpins populism is a claim to represent the interests of the “real people,” then what anti-populists such as the Sardines share is a desire and, thus far, an ability to refute that claim. In mobilizing thousands against Salvini, the Sardines “have basically turned [populism] on its head and said, ‘No, actually we are the ordinary people,’” Fieschi told me. “They did the quintessential Italian thing—they went down in la piazza ... They did exactly what ordinary people do.”

For all the impact the Sardines have had, however, it’s virtually impossible to tell how they will be able to measure their success. Unlike anti-populist parties and figures, “you cannot vote for them. They are not a political alternative,” Francesco Giavazzi, an economics professor at Bocconi University, in Milan, told me. If Salvini loses in Emilia-Romagna, they will be able to claim a piece of that success. But then what?

Giavazzi said that one option is for the group to “turn into a political entity,” just as the Five Star Movement did when it fielded its first candidates in Italy’s local elections, in 2009. Like the Sardines, the Five Star Movement began spontaneously—first as a series of internet-driven local meetings, led by the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, then in the form of national rallies. Also like the Sardines, the Five Star Movement started out as a nonpolitical entity, stating in its early statutes that it “is not a political party nor is it intended to become one in the future.” Transitioning from being a protest movement to being a political entity isn’t easy, but others have shown the way: In Hong Kong, a similar effort to transform the city’s months-long demonstrations into a permanent prodemocracy movement is already under way.

So far, the Sardines have shown no signs of wanting to go down this route. To be successful as an anti-populist movement, though, they don’t necessarily have to. “It’s quite clear that their view is not to put forward ideas and things [that] need to be done differently,” Fieschi said. “They just want to take the wind out of [Salvini’s] sails. In a sense, it doesn’t go any further than that … It’s like taking the air out of [a] populist balloon.”