ROME (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of supporters of Italy’s right-wing opposition parties, led by the League of Matteo Salvini who was ousted from power two months ago, gathered in central Rome on Saturday to protest against the new government.
Crowds waving League flags and Italian flags filled Piazza San Giovanni, traditionally a place for leftist and union rallies, as Salvini and his allies spoke from a stage against a huge backdrop that read “Italian Pride”.
“It is Italy that works and suffers, that dreams and hopes,” said Salvini, who was deputy prime minister and interior minister in the previous coalition of the anti-establishment 5 Star League and Movement. .
That government collapsed in August when Salvini, encouraged by rising polls, stepped down in an unsuccessful attempt to call an election that he hoped would crown him as prime minister.
Instead, 5-Star formed a new coalition with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), pushing the League into opposition.
“We are the people against the elite, we are going to change the history of this country,” Salvini said, adding that 200,000 people attended the rally. Police estimated a figure closer to 50,000.
Opinion polls show the League has lost some support since Salvini overthrew the previous government, but it remains easily Italy’s most popular party, with around 30% of the vote.
However, the combined support of the PD, 5-Star and other allied leftist and centrist groups is about the same as support for the right-wing parties gathered at Saturday’s rally.
Salvini was preceded on stage by 83-year-old former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose conservative Forza Italia party has steadily lost support in recent years, and Giorgia Meloni, who leads the far-right Brothers of Italy party.
Salvini has eclipsed Berlusconi as a leader of the right but still needs his support if he is to renew his bid for power, leading to an ambiguous and often strained relationship.
The head of the League often says that his national alliance with Berlusconi is over, to revive it if necessary. Meanwhile, the three right-wing parties still join forces in local elections for mayors and regional governors.
“Thank you Silvio for the fights you fought and the fights we will fight,” Salvini said, promising the centre-right would stay united to “win together”.
Berlusconi, calling the new government ‘the most left-wing in our history’, said he entered politics 25 years ago to save Italy from ‘communists’, and now the threat was even greater .
The billionaire media mogul, who was convicted of tax evasion in 2013, said he was particularly concerned about the new coalition’s pledge to guarantee prison sentences for large-scale tax evaders.