ROME — A grass-roots movement protesting the populism of the far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini demonstrated its surging strength on Saturday, drawing tens of thousands of people to a vast square in Rome in its first national rally.
The Sardines movement, named for its ability to pack piazzas, reflects a general disgust among many liberal Italians over Mr. Salvini’s anti-migrant and anti-European language.
“Something has already changed in the Italian political panorama,” said Mattia Santori, 32, one of the movement’s founders. He said its chief purpose was to combat apathy and to offer equality, respect for the Constitution and stronger Italian institutions as a way to counter hate and Mr. Salvini’s essential themes: opposition to immigration, antagonism toward Europe and heightened security.
The Sardines were inspired to organize by Mr. Salvini’s campaign vow to “liberate” the liberal stronghold of Emilia Romagna in regional elections next month. They fear that if Mr. Salvini can win there, he can win anywhere.
Italians packed St. John at the Lateran Square on Saturday, holding signs reading “Humanity and Respect” and “Indifference, the Dark Side of Humanity.” Some carried European Union flags.
Organizers have sought to characterize the movement as a broad positive public appeal for more civility in politics. But some of the slogans at the rally conveyed a different tone: “The only good fascist is a fried fascist,” one sign read.
And a look around the square made clear that it is as much a specific response to Mr. Salvini and his League party as a broader statement.
Eduardo Scirè, 28, milled through the crowd with a box decorated with pictures of sardines, reading “How will we beat Salvini?”
“We need new ideas,” he said as a woman placed a long note in the box.
In an interview, Mr. Santori said the Sardines’ goal at this point was not generating specific proposals but instead creating a grass-roots energy. The movement seeks to bolster an established left-leaning candidate, whoever it might be, against Mr. Salvini’s League party candidate in the Emilia Romagna elections at the end of January.
Mr. Santori said the movement did not want to become a political party, but suggested that wasn’t an impossibility, either. On Sunday, Sardines organizers were planning to meet with local rally organizers from around Italy to better understand the movement and where it might go.
Italian political analysts have asked whether the movement’s energy in the piazzas will translate to elections.
Mr. Salvini, who was politically sidelined this past summer in an overreach for power, leads Italy’s oldest political party. He has solid support and a sophisticated political operation as he tries for a comeback by picking off traditionally left-leaning regions.
In mid-November, Mr. Salvini was set to kick off his party’s campaign in Bologna, the region’s capital, in an arena that held 5,700 people. Mr. Santori sent a message to a few friends to meet the next day.
Over lunch in Bologna, they decided to spread a Facebook invite to a “flash mob” rally at a Bologna square, though without political or party banners. They hoped for 6,000 people. Instead 15,000 showed up.
Subsequent rallies packed squares around the region and then the country. In Florence, Turin and elsewhere, Sardines sang an anti-Fascist resistance song, “Bella Ciao,” which has been closely associated with the Italian left for decades.
At the rally in Rome on Saturday, young and old alike sang the song repeatedly as Ismail Sylla, a 23-year-old from Mali, marched by with other migrants in a group called “the Black Sardines.”
Mr. Sylla said the group hoped for the repeal of Mr. Salvini’s tough Security Decree, a measure approved by Parliament late last year that cracked down on illegal migrants. Asked what he would do if Mr. Salvini returned to power, he said: “I don’t want to hear the question. He is a big problem for us. We suffered so much under him.”
The peaceful, respectful tone of the demonstrations has made it hard for Mr. Salvini to deride them with his usual characterizations: as hard-left or elitist elements far removed from the Italian mainstream.
And as the Sardines movement has grown, it has built a metric of support that Mr. Salvini’s operation pays attention to: Mr. Santori’s Facebook page support has ballooned to more than 200,000 followers.
Mr. Santori said the left’s communication style was outdated because no one wants to listen to hourlong speeches anymore, especially when Mr. Salvini’s social media operation — called The Beast — pumps out tweets, Facebook Live posts and videos for the TikTok app.
“There are people who think you can beat Salvini’s Beast with political rallies from the 1990s; unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way,” he said, adding, “We have to propose an alternative that in some way is cool.”
Mr. Salvini, who first mocked the group, writing on Twitter that he liked kittens more because “they eat sardines when hungry,” then shifted to criticizing its lack of proposals. He later expressed appreciation for its democratic impulse, saying, “The more people participate, the better.”
His softening may have something to do with the Sardine-size dent in his poll numbers. Some polls have shown that the Sardines would capture 17 percent of the national electorate if they became a party.
But even Mr. Santori acknowledges that the true measure of the movement will come in the Emilia Romagna election.
He said that after the Sardines started filling squares, the candidate for the center-left was able to draw supporters to his events. Without the Sardines, he said, “he wouldn’t have done it.”
But recent Italian history has a track record of protest movements that seemed important and then disappeared.
In 2002, as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi dominated Italian politics, the liberal Ring-Around-the-Rosie protests stood up against the mogul. And then they all fell down.
But then again, some movements took over the country.
Angry demonstrations in 2007 gave birth to the Five Star Movement, which in 2018 won the largest share of national elections. It governed in a coalition with Mr. Salvini’s hard-right League party before switching allegiances to the center-left Democratic party this summer.
Mr. Santori rejected any comparisons to the Five Star Movement and its anti-establishment message that reduced the right and the left alike. “There’s a difference,” he said. “At a certain point you have to pick where you stand.”
While the Sardines obviously stand against Mr. Salvini and nationalism, whether the movement will matter ultimately may depend on whether it clarifies what it stands for beyond civility and human rights.
“We’ve filled the piazza, mission accomplished,” Mr. Santori told the crowd on Saturday. But close to the stage, where young people sang “Bella Ciao” and “I hate Salvini,” a young man held a key question written on cardboard.
“At the ballot box,” it read, “will we stay close and united?”