Italy's Northern League launches southern push

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Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
09:18 CET+01:00
The Northern League, led by the rising star of the Italian right Matteo Salvini, launched its political conquest Friday of the country's south, with a view one day to capturing national power.

While previous designs on making the regional party a nationwide force have failed, the group is banking on Salvini's growing popularity as well as his anti-immigration, anti-EU stance to propel them to national success.

"We will make it into power. I don't know when, but we will get there," Salvini told reporters.

The movement aimed at the south will bear his name, "Us with Salvini", but the party will keep its original title in the north, where it was founded over 20 years ago.

Party leaders said membership in the new effort is open to any Italian not already in office, though politicians' bids to join the movement will also be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Salvini said it is an attempt to avoid "recycling" certain politicians who may be hoping to take advantage of the party's momentum, which is being spurred by his steadily growing popularity.

A recent poll ranked Salvini just behind Prime Minister Matteo Renzo on Italians' list of favourite political leaders. His rise has been compared to Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front in France.

Salvini is a self-confessed fan of Le Pen, who has softened the hard-right image of her party and broadened its appeal as voters across Europe have turned to populist parties in a backlash against Brussels and the economic gloom engulfing much of the euro zone.

In addition to his anti-EU views, Salvini has also personally backed tough social policies like chemical castration for rapists and the introduction a life sentence without parole and more rigorous application of immigration laws.

The first goals for Salvini are the regional elections set for early 2015 in Tuscany, Marche and Latium, the region that includes Italy's capital.

Many Italians are dubious about the Northern League's prospects in the south, which previous party leaders -- including founder Umberto Bossi -- have alienated with frequent criticism of mafia activity and other crime of the lower half of the country.

"We have never attacked citizens of the south, only those who manage it," Salvini said, adding that he has in fact been encouraged by southerners.

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"The kinds of messages I'm receiving and which give me faith are things like, 'I never thought I would turn toward the League,'" he said.

Salvini's moves come at a time when voter participation has hit record lows in Italy. Abstentions reached 60 percent during regional elections in November in the northern region of Emilie-Romagna, which saw the Northern League come in ahead of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia for the first time.

"We speak to millions of Italians who have remained political orphans, who stayed home" during the elections, Salvini said.

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