Electoral projections in Italy late on Sunday predicted the centre-left had narrowly defeated Matteo Salvini’s League party in key regional elections in Emilia-Romagna, successfully repelling a populist takeover of the long-time leftist bastion.
“This is clearly a defeat for Salvini,” said La7 anchor Enrico Mentana, announcing the first projections showing incumbent Democratic Party (PD) president Stefano Bonaccini taking a 4-6 point lead over his rival in Emilia-Romagna.
Polls were open on Sunday to more than 5 million voters in two Italian regions, the poor southern region of Calabria, handily won by the League-led centre right coalition candidate, and the wealthy, liberal Emilia-Romagna, where the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) incumbent president Stefano Bonaccini appeared poised for larger than expected victory over League senator Lucia Borgonzoni.
"Whoever wins when the votes are all counted, whether the person is named Stefano or Lucia, the people are always right, and they merit this victory," said Salvini, cautiously awaiting the final vote count before conceding defeat in the tight race. "I am proud of what our team did in Emilia-Romagna and Calabria and proud to be part of this moment of historical change in Italy."
High turnout in the urban centres such as Bologna and Modena helped Mr. Bonaccini consolidate support despite months of relentless campaigning by League leader Matteo Salvini alongside Ms. Borgonzoni in more than 300 city squares, from which they posted on social media feeds dressed in Ferrari garb or enjoying pasta, parmesan and Parma hams.
Though opinion polls consistently show the far-right, anti-migrant League as the most popular party in Italy, Mr Salvini was unable to break the Democratic Party’s iron grip on the traditionally liberal region of Emilia-Romagna, considered the birthplace of Italian socialism.
Energised by the national spotlight, observers noted the centre-left in Emilia-Romagna also benefited from grassroots Sardines movement, born in Bologna just two months ago to oppose Mr Salvini’s populist message by packing city squares like shoals of fish. The movement’s momentum, culminating with 40,000 people gathered in Bologna last week, created a wave that may have helped the centre-left retain power it has held since the Second World War.
Over the weekend, the four Bolognese founders of the Sardines movement took a symbolic swim in the frigid Adriatic Sea just off Papeete Beach, the Adriatic seaside club from where Mr Salvini interrupted his summer holiday to abandon the government coalition he had formed together with Five Star Movement. The ambitious League leader expected the move would trigger early elections, but it backfired spectacularly when Five Star instead formed a coalition with the Democratic Party, effectively shutting him out of the government.
Eager for revenge, Mr Salvini and his smaller party allies, the Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, called for the “eviction” of Premier Giuseppe Conte in the case of victory in Emilia-Romagna. But Conte, a popular figure in Italy, is not packing any boxes. Rather it is M. Salvini left pondering his next move after staking his political credibility on what he called “the mother of all battles,” hoping to flip Emilia-Romagna to the right, like he did successfully last autumn in Umbria, which the left lost for the first time in post war history.
Though Italy has been in a deep economic recession for more than a decade, Emilia-Romagna is the second wealthiest and considered one of the best governed regions in Italy, with lower unemployment, higher salaries and decades of ample investment in social and cultural services. The region’s most prominent Catholic cardinal backed Mr Bonaccini, as did the business lobby, influential families and cultural leaders such as Fabio Roversi Monaco, rector of the University of Bologna for 15 years, whose public comments in the Italian press all echoed a similar message: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.