Italy’s right-wing leader Matteo Salvini failed in his effort to overturn decades of leftist rule in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna on Sunday in an election that brought huge relief to the embattled centre-left.
Pollster forecasts based on an ongoing count predicted the incumbent PD governor, Stefano Bonaccini, had won between 51%-49% of the vote compared to 43%-45% for the candidate backed by the League and its allies.
Salvini had campaigned relentlessly in the region since the start of the year, seeking a shock victory that he hoped would bring down the fragile national government, which includes the PD and is riven by internal strife.
Although he fell short in Emilia-Romagna, Salvini took comfort from the fact that his rightist bloc had secured a resounding victory in a separate regional election held on Sunday in the underdeveloped southern toe of Italy, Calabria.
But the main prize was undoubtedly Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s wealthiest regions, which is home to the Ferrari sports car and Parmesan cheese, and has proved an impregnable leftist stronghold for generations.
“Emilia-Romagna has sent a signal. Salvini knows how to talk about problems, but he doesn’t know how to sort them out and the people have responded,” said PD leader Nicola Zingaretti.
Underscoring the enormous interest in the ballot, turnout hit 68%, some 30 points up on the last such election in 2014.
But while the PD dodged disaster, there was less good news for its coalition partner, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which looked on course to win barely 5% of the vote in Emilia-Romagna and little more than 6% in Calabria.
The party emerged as Italy’s largest group in 2018 national elections with 33% backing, but it has seen its support slide in recent months leading to a wave of defections amongst its lawmakers and the resignation of its leader Luigi Di Maio.
Political analysts predicted that Sunday’s ballot-box setback would weaken the 5-Star’s standing within the coalition and give the PD more power to dictate its own policy priorities.
In a rare political miscalculation, Salvini walked out of government with 5-Star last August, expecting to trigger a national election that polls predicted he would easily win.
Instead, 5-Star joined up with the PD and shunted him into opposition. Looking to exact revenge, Salvini has since concentrated all his efforts on winning a stream of local votes.
The right has now won nine regional elections since March 2018, while chalking up just the one loss in Emilia-Romagna.
Salvini’s anti-immigrant, anti-European message resonated during the campaign, as did his pledge to slash taxes.
But incumbent Bonaccini had one of the highest approval ratings of any Italian regional chief and focused exclusively on core local issues.
Bonaccini was given a boost by a grassroots movement that sprang up during the campaign, earning itself the name “the Sardines” by packing local squares with anti-Salvini rallies.