Following the recent elections, Italy adopted a new government that relegated the Lega Nord party of Matteo Salvini to opposition status in the government. During its term in power, Lega had major media and political relevance. Its shift to the opposition did not suppress support from the party and its supporters for topics such as membership in the EU, migration and economic reforms. Following the pattern seen in other European member states, such as France and Hungary (and an even greater degree), the wave of euro-skepticism and national sovereignism has had its effect on Italian public opinion in the last 2 years.
Unexpectedly, however, public opinion is changing in Italy. Or perhaps more likely, the silent majority of the population decided to raise its voice. This feeling took form under the “Sardines” movement, founded by three Italian flat mates and realized on the 14th of November in Bologna. The result was the first peaceful mass demonstration against the political campaign of the Lega party for election of the new regional president of Emilia Romagna.
The nascent Sardines movement can be identified as a pool of people antagonistic to the Lega party and its ideology. That might be a biased impression, but it’s at least a general picture. The movement was born in order to counter the populist rhetoric that has affected in Italy in the last years. Despite the simplicity of the idea proposed by the Sardines, the structure is less simple than one would think. The leadership is in the hands of four young Italians (Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti, Giulia Trappoloni and Andrea Garreffa), assisted by 25 other collaborators who provide the top dogs with press review feedback on public opinion, and with media management.
From that, it seems the movement is well-structured and is unlikely to disappear in a few weeks as a flash in the pan. That is, sardines are well organized and move in shoals. The movement does the same: a compact group in strict formation, concretely, a collective that shows strength coming from values.
This is true despite the fact that the Sardine mobilization started with the aim of striking down the rally campaign of Lega in Emilia Romagna, traditionally a political stronghold for the Italian left. The Sardines movement aims to awaken the Italian political conscience — which has been silent, or had decided earlier to adopt the nationalist ideology proposed by the Lega party. The Sardines movement might reflect that part of the society that is not necessarily in line with the rising populist ideology, but has been silenced by the force of it.
The Sardines movement built itself with the help of social media. The distribution of the events and the formation of groups has been passing through Facebook, a platform that has been a fundamental tool for spreading the message of awakening of the political conscience. The Sardines built their credibility on the basis of their demonstrations. Flash mobs and peaceful protests grew quickly, as explained by co-founder Mattia Santori:
“Every day we launch five or six different events throughout Italy, the calendar now has 30 appointments, which will be joined by another 15-20.”
The proactivity of the movement is a key factor in establishing their position, which professes to remain apolitical. Another tool that established the foundation of the movement is the adoption of the “Salvini method,” as described by Santori on national broadcast (La7). He says they developed the same ability the Lega leader in filling up the public squares.
Santori defines the movement as still in an embryonic stage, asserting that there will be more work to do. At the moment, the Sardines move by seeking consensus and enlarging the group through social media, a strategy also used previously by Matteo Salvini. Among the different Facebook groups dedicated to the Sardines, the “Arcipelago delle sardine” (Sardines’ archipelago) is the largest, counting more than 100,000 followers. Looking inside the group, particularly in the comment section, the uncertainty as to the future of the group is dominating discussion within the movement — not at the foundation, but among those who joined. As the whole group seems motivated by an anti-fa spirit, some members of the group would like to see the movement recognized as leftist, while others insist on the importance of being apolitical. Remaining apolitical would follow the roots of the Movimento 5 Stelle and boost the phenomenon in which politics is determined by apolitical people, or at least those who do not have any political experience.
The Sardines were born as a movement antagonistic to populism, and the founders declared it removed from political parties. Their initial determination has been to contrapose it to the nationalist and populist spirit that arose in Italy. Nevertheless, their antagonism quickly targeted a political entity: Matteo Salvini. Gathering consensus by criticizing politicians on their political performances while pretending to remain apolitical is an opportunistic effort. While their professed intention to remain distant from political parties may be subject to change, at the moment the founders still resist being associated with the Italian left. Still, there is ground to believe that the Sardines could have a successful entrance in the Italian political party system. According to Ixè, the Sardines would collect 7,5% of the vote of those persons entitled to vote. The preference would arrive mostly from previous voters of the Democratic Party (PD), M5S, and from those who typically abstain.
Now, it is difficult to forecast the future of such a young movement, given also the uncertainty hovering over the movement as to which direction it should follow. Nevertheless, Santori affirmed that at this moment, the faction fills a gap in political representation that currently exists in Italy. From that, he seems to have hinted at a possible political future for the movement, asserting that:
“At the moment we are filling a representation gap, so there are two cases: either we fund a party, or we present our requests to those who already do the politics. Whether they are PD, M5s or moderate right. We will arrive at four, five or six points on which we will ask politics to work.”
Despite the uncertainties, the Sardines surely represent another piece of the new jigsaw composing global politics nowadays, as seen in France, UK, Ukraine and the US. New grassroots movements are rising, and they aim to voice their ideology through politics.
Specifically for Italy, this is a well-known model, as seen previously with the M5S, which began by gathering people in the public squares — and is now one of the two parties comprising the coalition of the Italian Government.