MILAN • Mr Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's right-wing League party, drew thousands of supporters to a weekend rally as campaigning intensified ahead of a March 4 election expected to give most seats to a coalition of which his party is a member.
Mr Salvini, 44, who has pulled the League away from its original aim of securing independence for the wealthy north towards euro-scepticism and opposing immigration, told crowds in Milan's Duomo Square he would put Italians first.
Several other demonstrations took place in Milan and other cities over the weekend, some inspired by recent episodes of violence, including a shooting spree by a Nazi sympathiser that injured six Africans in the town of Macerata.
In Milan itself, police clashed with left-wing protesters who were trying to reach a rally of neo-fascist group CasaPound, but a large march against racism in Rome proceeded peacefully.
At the League rally, Mr Salvini climbed over two barriers and forced his way through cameras to shake hands with people who chanted and waved flags before taking to the stage.
"Those who choose the League choose a clear view, Italians first," he said, invoking economic problems which have hardened many Italians' attitudes against immigrants.
"With five million Italians in poverty, with three million Italians unemployed, I open the doors to my home, but not until these Italians have a house and a job," he said.
Big rallies have so far been notably absent from campaigning to form Italy's 65th government in little more than 70 years, with a new electoral law leaving the outcome highly uncertain.
In the final polls published a week ago, the coalition in which Mr Salvini looks to be playing second fiddle to former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia was in the lead.
Alongside the smaller, nationalist Brothers of Italy, the group is set to win the most seats in Parliament, but is unlikely to get a working majority without striking further post-election deals with other parties.
Most opinion polls put Forza Italia ahead of the League, but Mr Salvini said he was sure his party would prevail and, holding a copy of the Bible, said: "I swear to be faithful to my people." Whichever party gets the most votes will pick the premier.
"Salvini is the ideal man for Italy... the priority is to control the borders and then give a helping hand to the economy," said Mr Claudio Gaiola, 52, an electronics goods maker from Turin who sported a baseball cap saying "Salvini premier".
Mixed messages from the coalition have made the League's deal with Mr Berlusconi, who cannot run for Parliament himself due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction, seem uneasy at times.
"Pure League supporters aren't happy with the alliance with Berlusconi, but we understand it's the only way to get into government," said Mr Marco Sensoli, 38, a state employee from north-east Italy.
The party born as the Northern League has reinvented itself as a national force and the presence at the rally of people from outside its traditional bastions suggested some in the poorer south have accepted this transformation.
"I don't see the League as wanting to split Italy, but as wanting to resuscitate Italy," said Ms Immacolata Gianuzzi, a 39-year-old waitress from Puglia in the heel of Italy's boot, who now lives in Milan.