Thousands of protesters gather for 'Italian pride' rally

Thousands gather for 'Italian pride' rally to protest against government of former enemies

ROME -- Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Rome on Saturday for a so-called "Italian Pride" rally that brought together the right-wing League of Matteo Salvini, the far-right Brothers of Italy party led by Giorgia Meloni and former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

Salvini's League, which remains Italy's largest party despite its leader's failed bid for the premiership, called for the mass demonstration to protest against the government forged by two former arch-enemies, the center-left Democrats and the 5-Star Movement, to avoid a snap election following the crisis triggered by Salvini.

Amid waving national flags and "Salvini Premier" banners, the right-wing alliance staged an uneasy show of unity, downplaying internal frictions among the strongman Salvini, the fading Berlusconi and the far-right star Meloni, who is imposing herself on Italy's political scene as the country shifts further to the right.

The dominant roles of Salvini and Meloni in the right-wing alliance, which likely will run at the next general elections, became evident as Berlusconi - once the popular kingmaker of Italian politics - was booed by dozens of demonstrators, openly impatient to see their "Captain" Salvini take the stage.

In a clear sign of the shifting balance of power within the rightist coalition, the energetic Meloni was able to inflame the crowd with a speech focused on Italian identity, "traditional" family values and old-style patriotism.

"We are people. And we have our identity," she said as people in the piazza shouted her name. "I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, and I am Christian, and you cannot take that away from me."

Neo-fascist group CasaPound also joined Saturday's rally, sparking a political controversy within the center-right moderates. Its supporters were relegated to a corner of the crowded San Giovanni square - a traditional venue for leftist and union rallies -- and closely escorted by police.

"We think it is the right moment to unite rather than divide," said CasaPound leader Simone Di Stefano. "Among other things, we won't run for election anymore, so there is no reason to stay away from this piazza."

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," Salvini said.

He said some 200,000 people had turned out for the rally but police estimated a figure closer to 50,000.

"They tell us we are fascists, xenophobes, racists, but we are just Italians who want to be respected and represented," said one attendee, 61-year-old Donatella Lanfranconi, who came from the northern city of Como.

"We ask Matteo (Salvini) to lead us to the polls as soon as possible. And once we'll be finally allowed to vote, we'll win big," she said.

Recent polls show that the League's support has been dented since Salvini's failed bid for power, which ended up ousting him from government. But pollsters also estimate that the new rightist alliance with Salvini, Meloni and the remains of a moribund Forza Italia could allow them to easily reach more than 40% of the vote in the next election, handing them solid control over the Italian parliament.