The movement, founded in mid-November by a group of four friends from Bologna in a spontaneous response to Salvini’s threat to “liberate” Emilia-Romagna from the left, has gained a huge following, with thousands of supporters squeezing into piazzas across the country in recent months.

The debut Sardines demonstration in Bologna attracted an estimated 15,000 people, and quickly spread across the country, culminating with a national rally in Rome in December that attracted an estimated 40,000 supporters.

The next demonstration is planned for Bologna on Sunday, exactly a week  before the regional election.

Meanwhile, Salvini is plotting his path to power one small town at a time.

With brief visits to agricultural communities, the hard-right leader of Italy’s League party has launched his campaign for the crucial regional election.

If Salvini wins, the shaky government made up of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) may fall, leading to national elections and a return to power for Salvini, who was forced out of government last August following his failed attempt to force snap elections.

Support for the League has dwindled but it is still Italy’s biggest party.

The right-wing coalition’s candidate, Lucia Borgonzoni, is polling slightly behind Stefano Bonaccini, the incumbent president from the PD.