ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s anti-euro Northern League is starting a southern charm offensive in the populous island of Sicily as it seeks to take the leading opposition role on the right of Italian politics.
Party leader Matteo Salvini apologised for his party’s traditional anti-southern stance in the Sicilian capital Palermo on Sunday and took a swipe at Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, against whom Salvini has emerged as a potentially serious contender.
“We might have taken the wrong tone. Unlike Renzi I say sorry when I do something wrong,” the 41-year-old Salvini said at a news conference where he wore a sweater emblazoned with the word “Sicilia”.
The League was founded in the 1980s and used to campaign for the independence of northern Italy. It has seen its fortunes soar since the gruff, plain-speaking Salvini took over from party founder Umberto Bossi in 2013 after a financial scandal.
Its support has risen from 6 percent to around 13 percent, making it the largest party on Italy’s fragmented right, according to some opinion polls. But Salvini knows that to grow further he must branch out of the League’s northern heartland and win votes in the south.
He has shifted the party’s ire away from southern corruption and “Thieving Rome,” and now campaigns against the euro and immigration, two issues which resonate deeply among voters pinched by years of recession and stubbornly high unemployment.
“From Palermo, I carry in my heart the words of the fishermen and farmers: ‘they are massacring us’. We will not abandon you!” Salvini wrote on Twitter on Monday.
He has dropped “Northern” from the party’s name in his southern campaign, calling it simply “With Salvini.”
The League was the junior partner in several governments headed by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi between 1994 and 2011. With Berlusconi hobbled by legal problems Salvini now wants to take the reins of the centre-right himself.
Berlusconi was banned from holding public office for six years after a 2013 tax fraud conviction, and a pact with Renzi over institutional reforms which had kept him at the centre of political debate broke down last week.
Berlusconi announced his Forza Italia would now vigorously oppose Renzi and he and Salvini are planning to run together again in regional elections in the spring.
It remains to be seen whether they can make inroads against Renzi, who successfully seated his candidate for Italy’s presidency last month and whose Democratic Party continues to dominate opinion polls.
Meanwhile, some Sicilian voters have not forgotten the League’s anti-southern fulminations. Salvini was greeted on Sunday by demonstrators and posters reading: “Salvini, Palermo does not forgive.”
Reporting by Isla Binnie, additional reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Liisa Tuhkanen