Italy's Salvini fails in bid to seize left's northern stronghold

Matteo Salvini had promised to ‘evict’ the Italian government if he won in Sunday’s elections

Leader of Italy's far-right League party Matteo Salvini speaks after polls close for the Emilia-Romagna regional election, in Bologna, Italy, January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Italy's right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini failed to overturn decades of leftist rule in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna on Sunday in an election that brought relief to the embattled centre-left.

With 98 per cent of the ballots counted, incumbent Democratic Party (PD) governor Stefano Bonaccini had won 51.4 per cent of the vote compared to 43.7 per cent for the candidate backed by the League and its allies, interior ministry data showed.

Mr Salvini had campaigned relentlessly in the region since the start of the year, seeking a shock victory that he hoped would bring down the national government, which includes the PD and is riven by internal strife.

"The ruling majority comes out (of the regional elections) stronger," said PD leader Nicola Zingaretti, adding that Mr Salvini had failed in his attempt to "shove the government out".

Mr Salvini's rightist bloc did secure a resounding victory in a separate regional election 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 been 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," Mr Zingaretti said.

Underscoring the enormous interest in the ballot, turnout hit 68 per cent, some 30 points up on the last such election in 2014.

But while the PD dodged disaster, its coalition partner, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, won only 3.5 per cent of the vote in Emilia-Romagna and little more than 7 per cent in Calabria.

The party was the largest group in 2018 national elections with 33 per cent backing, but 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 results would weaken 5-Star's standing within the coalition and give the PD more power to dictate its own policy priorities.

"Looking ahead, the government will likely continue to struggle to deliver on most policy fronts... The 5-Star will be internally torn, at the very least, until its planned congress in March," said Wolfango Piccoli in a Teneo research note, noting that the risk of a snap general election was lower.

In a rare political miscalculation, Mr 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, Mr 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.

Mr Salvini's anti-immigrant, anti-European message resonated during the campaign, as did his pledge to slash taxes.

But incumbent Stefano Bonaccini had one of the highest approval ratings of any Italian regional chief and focused exclusively on core local issues.

Mr 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.