In what will most certainly be a foregone conclusion, on the evening of 29 March after the second round of voting, the populist anti-immigration Northern League party will take control of the region of Venice — a result that will mark a major milestone for the political grouping born 25 years ago under the mocking gaze of traditional politicians, which now runs 350 towns and 14 provinces north of the river Po.

Welcome to Zaia country

Polls show that the right-wing Northern League and people of Freedom list led by Agriculture Minister, Luca Zaia, has a 10- to 12-percentage-point lead over its centre-left rival. "I'm in the position of a football team that is five goals ahead. I only have to avoid making mistakes," points out the minister in the car taking us from Conigliano, his native town in the province of Treviso, to Padua where he is to take part in a debate. Mr Zaia devotes a maximum of two days a week to his campaign, and never canvasses on Sundays: "The family is sacred," he says, and he also needs time to look after his horses. So why bother with meetings and pressing flesh? Everyone knows the League in this region where the movement has systematically gained ground by insisting on putting the North first, and rejecting any threat to northern identity.

It is a platform that has proved remarkably successful with small business owners weary of seeing their taxes "squandered" to help the terroni ("bumpkins from the South"), their employees who fear that immigrants will take their jobs, farmers and wine growers outraged by the nit-picking rule-makers in Brussels, and craftsmen worried by the competition from China and emerging countries. In election after election, the League has gone from strength to strength, sidelining the Left and eventually rivalling — and even overtaking — its ally, the right-wing People of Freedom party. As one of the minister's enthusiastic supporters puts it, "This is Zaia country."

Creating a safe haven in an insecure world

At age 43, with slicked back hair and a nattily tailored suit, Mr Zaia is the leading light for a new generation of League politicians. Only a discreet flash of green — the Northern League colour — from his breast pocket handkerchief indicates his association with extreme politics. He tends to leave xenophobic speeches which are mainstay of his party's identity — grumbling about migrants who should be "thrown back in the sea, and minarets" that "sully the fine landscape of Veneto," or directing insults at the cardinal of Milan who has been dubbed "the imam" for preaching in favour of tolerance — to his colleagues. Nor will you hear him whistling the national anthem or banging on about "citizen patrols" and special operations to expel undocumented aliens — at least not in public. Leveraging his position as minister of agriculture, he has presented himself as a defender of "identity:" a more politically correct stance than the position focusing on the brutal rejection of others, which is the standard fare served by the three other Northern League ministers in the current government. And it is a position that has enabled him to mount an efficient campaign promote products made in Veneto.

"The traditional League themes like the fight against immigration and law and order are now treated as subheadings under the more general theme of territorial identity," explains political analyst Stefano Bruno Galli. "It is a more generic platform that can appeal to the extreme right and the extreme left. Well before other political parties, the League realized that the end of ideology and the crisis in central government would mean that political allegiance would be increasingly defined by territorial concerns. Little by little, the party has emerged as a territorial agency that acts as a focal point for local interests." As Professor of Political Science at the University of Urbino Ilvo Diamanti remarks, "The League has succeeded in devising a platform that presents territorial security and the defence of tradition as policies that can create a safe haven in an insecure world."

We are good-hearted lads

The minister's and future regional governor's website manipulates and exploits this theme to the full. "Veneto first!" is the main slogan on his homepage. As to his first decision as governor: "We will immediately establish new federal structures. Local people have successfully governed this region for 1,000 years, so it is natural that it should provide the venue for a new experiment in autonomy. We have the capacity to manage new responsibilities like education, water, and energy," explains Mr Zaia, who also points out that "the region does not receive much in return for the 90 billion euros in tax revenue it contributes to the state."

Is this the expression of a siege mentality? "Absolutely not," replies the minister, "we don't want to withdraw from the world: we have to be 'glocal' that is global and local." And will migrants receive better treatment when Luca Zaia takes over as regional governor? "I am not against immigrants, I am against ghettoes. Even the Church has understood that we are good-hearted lads."