ROME – Voters in a 70-year-old stronghold of the Italian left have dealt a stinging blow to right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini's strategy of using regional voting to help catapult him and his anti-migrant populist League back into national power.
In final results announced on Monday from voting a day earlier in the prosperous Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, the center-left Democrats' incumbent won 51.4% of the vote for the governorship of the longtime fortress of the Italian left.
Salvini had criss-crossed the region dubbed Italy's ‘’Red Belt" for weeks in the quest for dominance, but his handpicked League candidate finished with 43.7%.
The Democrats are the junior partner in Premier Giuseppe Conte's wobbly national coalition government.
Conte's main coalition partner, the populist 5-Star Movement emerged battered from Sunday's voting, receiving some 3.4% of the vote.
The party's poor showing was its latest setback since its triumph in the 2018 national election.
Chatting with reporters outside the premier's office in Chigi Palace, Conte acknowledged that the 5-Star Movement's performance in the regional elections “wasn't brilliant," Yet he dismissed concerns that the 5-Stars' dismal results would endanger's his coalition's longevity.
"The numbers in Parliament are different,'' Conte said, referring to the 5-Stars' still holding a majority there, despite a rash of recent defections by lawmakers in the Movement to other political forces.
Salvini had played the Emilia-Romagna vote as if were “a referendum, pro or against, on the national government,'' Conte added. While the premier said he disagreed with that strategy, in any case, Salvini “comes out of it defeated."
For months, the League leader has been maneuvering in hopes of triggering early elections he's confident will bring him the premiership, since his party is the most popular in nationwide opinion polls.
As interior minister in Conte's first government, Salvini led migrant crackdowns to cater to his voter base. But his move to force early elections when he pulled the League out of government last summer backfired. Conte teamed up the 5-Stars with their arch-rival, the Democrat Party, in an uneasy new coalition that shut out Salvini.
Sunday's win by the Democrats could forestall any collapse of Conte's government.
"The takeaway from yesterday's vote is, it takes pressure off the PD (Democratic Party) to reconsider the alliance,'' said Federico Santi, senior analyst for Europe with Euroasia Group in London.
The usually exuberant Salvini sounded more restrained Monday, but hardly stalled in his quest to return his party to national government and become Italy's next leader. .
League candidates or those backed by them have triumphed in eight of nine regional contests, including a runaway victory in southern Calabria on Sunday by a united ticket of parties, including the League, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservates, and a steadily rising far-right party.
“Eight out of nine, it could be worse,'' Salvini told a news conference. ”I'm a perfectionist, I'd have preferred" nine.
“We have broad shoulders, we'll forge on,” Salvini promised, looking ahead to six more regional elections over the coming months.
Democrat Party leader Nicola Zingaretti, who is governor of the Lazio region including Rome, thanked a grass-roots movement, the Sardines, begun by young people in Bologna to convince voters in Emilia-Romagna that Salvini was a menace who must be stopped.
Gov. Stefano Bonaccini, a Democrat, had led a region where public health care, schools and other social services are generally considered to be excellently run. But with nationwide opinion polls showing the League's the most popular party among voters, the Sardines banded together to pack like-minded citizens in city and town squares to rally against Salvini.
Emilia-Romagna's turnout at the ballot box soared to 67% compared to 37% in the last regional vote in 2014.
How much of that turnout hinged on the Sardines' rallying efforts hasn't been scientifically determined, said Santi, the analyst, but he said they certainly energized the left-wing base against complacency.
“I'm from Bologna, I can say they did make a big difference,” Santi said in a phone interview from London. “They got people worked up or worried about a League victory” possibility.
Berlusconi, whose own political star has dimmed, has long disparaged the populist 5-Stars as dangerous for democracy. He gloated over their poor showing Sunday in both regions, saying the 5-Stars are "condemned to irrelevance” on the national scene.
Officially, the 5-Stars declared themselves undeterred by the results.
In a blog post, Movement lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies said: “This won't lead us to surrender, if anything the contrary is true.”