By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of supporters of Italy’s right-wing opposition parties, spearheaded by Matteo Salvini’s League which was ousted from power two months ago, gathered in central Rome on Saturday to protest against the new government.
The crowd waving League and Italian flags filled Piazza San Giovanni, traditionally a venue for leftist and trade union rallies, as Salvini and his allies spoke from a stage against a huge backdrop reading “Italian Pride.”
“This is the 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 League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
That government collapsed in August when Salvini, encouraged by surging poll ratings, pulled out in a failed bid to trigger elections he hoped would crown him as prime minister.
Instead, 5-Star formed a new coalition with the center-left Democratic Party (PD), pushing the League into opposition.
“We are the people against the elite, we will change the history of this country,” said Salvini, adding that 200,000 people had turned out at the rally. The police estimated a figure closer to 50,000.
Opinions polls show the League has lost some support since Salvini brought down the previous government, but it remains easily Italy’s most popular party, with around 30% of the vote.
However, the combined backing of the PD, 5-Star and other allied leftist and centrist groups is roughly the same as the support for the rightist parties gathered at Saturday’s rally.
Salvini was preceded on the 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 heads the far-right Brothers of Italy party.
Salvini has eclipsed Berlusconi as leader of the right but still needs his support if he is to make a renewed bid for power, leading to an ambiguous and often tense relationship.
The League chief often says his national alliance with Berlusconi is over, only to revive it again when needed. Meanwhile, the three rightist parties always join forces at local elections for mayors and regional governors.
“Thank you Silvio for the battles you have fought and the battles we will fight,” Salvini said, promising the center-right would remain united to “win together.”
Berlusconi, calling the new government “the most leftist 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 tycoon, who was convicted of tax fraud in 2013, said he was particularly worried by the new coalition’s pledge to ensure prison sentences for large-scale tax dodgers.