New anti-far right rally before Italy's regional elections

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Bologna (Italy) (AFP)

Thousands of people rallied Sunday in Bologna to try to prevent a leftist bastion falling to the far right in elections this month in northeastern Italy and avert the government's collapse in Rome.

They responded to the call of the "Sardines", a movement launched in November to fight anti-immigrant politician Matteo Salvini, a leading member of Italy's previous coalition government.

Salvini is hoping for a far-right victory in the January 26 elections in Emilia-Romagna.

That could lead to the collapse of the government formed by the leftist Democrat Party and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement.

This in turn could lead to national legislative elections, which Salvini fervently wants.

"This (regional election) will probably be a turning point for Italian politics," Mattia Santori, one of the founders of the Sardines, told the Repubblica newspaper.

"We have shown that we can do politics without low blows," the 32-year-old Santori said.

"We have already defeated populism. Salvini goes to the bars and does selfies. We fill up the squares."

The Sardine movement was a response to the growing strength in the north of the right-wing coalition led by Salvini's League party.

In late October, the League won a historic victory in regional polls in central Umbria, a left-wing stronghold for half a century.

Salvini is now campaigning hard to try to capture the wealthy Emilio Romagna, also a leftist bastion.

Polls suggest the League's candidates are running neck-and-neck with the current centre-left governor.