It is Saturday night in a snowstorm in northern Italy and Roberto Maroni, head of the rightwing Northern League party, is on the campaign trail.
Mr Maroni is in Pavia, an affluent if unassuming university town on the Lombardy plain. The town has only 70,000 inhabitants, but it has become of one of the most important battle grounds in the run-up to Italy’s parliamentary elections on February 24-25.
Voters here and across Lombardy, the industrial heartland of Italy, which calls Milan its capital, may well decide the outcome of the election – and the fate of Mario Monti, Italy’s technocratic prime minister now seeking a political mandate. The region is the Italian equivalent of Ohio, at least this time.
“For us, this is the mother of all battles,” Mr Maroni told the Financial Times after giving his stump speech in a popular Pavia cocktail bar while snow fell heavily outside.
Under Italy’s electoral rules, the party or coalition that takes the largest share of the votes in elections for the lower house wins 55 per cent of the seats. Polls suggest that the centre-left Democrats, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, will be guaranteed a majority in the lower house.
However, for the Senate the game is different. The 55 per cent seat premium is assigned on a regional basis. Lombardy is the biggest of Italy’s regions with 49 of the Senate’s 315 seats. It is one of four swing regions (the others are Veneto, Sicily and Campania) that will decide the Senate battle.
Mr Bersani cannot afford to lose Lombardy and one of the other three. If he does, he would probably have to form a coalition with Mr Monti’s centrists.
The centre-left have traditionally been weak in Lombardy, once the heartland of Silvio Berlusconi, former centre-right prime minister. However, Mr Bersani is now benefiting from a backlash against the collapse of the centre-right-Northern League regional coalition government amid a corruption scandal.
Berlusconi and Maroni are looking to get enough Senate seats to deny Mr Bersani, even in coalition with Mr Monti, a majority. The latest opinion polls suggest Mr Berlusconi continues to close in on his opponents nationally. In Lombardy the centre-right and centre-left are neck and neck on about 31 per cent.
“Lombardy is the region to watch,” says Daniele Antonucci, senior economist at Morgan Stanley who notes the comparisons with Ohio in the recent US elections.
“Lombardy’s economy also accounts for about 20 per cent of Italy’s GDP [gross domestic product]. As such, one might also compare it with California from an economic standpoint,” he adds.
Recent polls indicate that the vote may come down to just 100,000 undecided swing voters living on the often-fog-bound-plain around Pavia where fields growing risotto rice are interspersed with the premises of industrial equipment manufacturers.
The Northern League has set out to harness dissatisfaction with austerity in the manufacturing heartland around Milan while it plays to populist fears about the south and long-held fears about control from Brussels.
Their deal to join forces with Mr Berlusconi “is advantageous”, says Mr Maroni, as it will give them a say in Rome to push through their secessionist vision.
In the cocktail bar in Pavia, Mr Maroni’s most eye-catching pledge – to see that 75 per cent of the taxes in Lombardy stay in Lombardy – gets the biggest applause from the crowds of a hundred or so men and women who are all warmly dressed in coats and scarves against the winter cold.
Political rivals on the centre-left argue the promise is redundant as Bank of Italy data indicate the region already keeps about three-quarters of the taxes raised there, but the claim plays well among the league’s constituents in the northern heartland.
Delio Fontanella, a retired small business owner, says he likes the idea of the taxes being kept in Lombardy. His disposable income has shrunk in the past year because of steep taxes on property forcing him to sell his 10-year old Porsche. “I like it that the league protects us from the other regions,” he says.
Mr Maroni’s tax plan is part of long-held aim of the Northern League to create what he calls “a hegemony in the north”, a super region called Padania, extending from Turin to Venice, with Lombardy at its centre.
The league’s position alarms some economists who fear the rise of protectionism will deepen Italy’s recession and dire lack of competitiveness.
For the league’s core supporters, the greater problem with the league’s idea of a super-region is that Mr Maroni had to make a deal to ally the party with Mr Berlusconi to try to achieve it
Bickering between the league and Mr Berlusconi's People of Liberty party hobbled the tycoon's successive past governments and the league consistently failed to achieve its promises for self-determination for the north.
Rosella, a housewife who declines to give her surname, says she likes Mr Maroni's “nice words” in Pavia but she would trust him more if he were not allied with “that salesman Berlusconi”.
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