BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 28th January, 2020) Sunday's regional elections in Italy only took place in two of the country's regions: the affluent and populous Emilia-Romagna in the north, around Bologna and other large cities, and the poorer southern region of Calabria.
However, the election in Emilia-Romagna was much more than a regional poll. It was a national test for Matteo Salvini and his far-right Lega party.
Voters were allowed to cast their ballot until 23:00 CET (22:00 GMT) on Sunday, with the first results appearing at 02:00 on Monday. In the end, Salvini was defeated by the left in Emilia-Romagna, in what many considered to be a litmus test for the support of Italy's current government, a coalition formed of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
In the end, PD candidate Stefano Bonaccini kept his post with, according to the results, 51.4 percent of the vote. His Lega rival Lucia Borgonzoni received 43.7 percent of the vote. In Calabria, the Salvini-backed Jole Santelli of the center-right Forza Italia party won a clear majority; a small victory for Salvini, but one that will not threaten Italy's coalition government.
A HISTORICAL BASTION OF THE LEFT
Just south of the river Po, Emilia-Romagna has several large cities: Ferrara, Modena, Parma, Rimini but above all Bologna, the historical city of the left. Emilia-Romagna is also a crucial driver of the Italian economy.
"It is in this 'laboratory of the left' that Salvini wanted to overthrow the present coalition of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, which put together the Democratic Party of [former Prime Minister] Romano Prodi - which is the incarnation of the 'system,' and the 'anti-system' Five Star Movement," Aldo Carcaci, a former People's Party (Belgium) lawmaker and analyst of Italian politics told Sputnik.
Bologna was also the birthplace of the Sardines movement, a grassroots political organization that seeks to counter the right-wing surge in Italy, buoyed by a spike in anti-immigrant and euroskeptic rhetoric, Carcaci added.
"But despite Salvini's campaigning in the region these last few weeks, the challenge failed. It is not desperate for Salvini. Lega won in Calabria and retains power in a large majority of regions, but he will have to wait for another quarrel within the coalition to obtain national elections. The M5S is in total disarray, both in Calabria and Emilia-Romagna, so it won't take long. The coalition desperately clings to power, but soon, tensions will re-emerge," Carcaci remarked.
Sunday's election result demonstrates that the heart of Italy continues to beat on the left. However, while Bonaccini may have kept his post as President of Emilia-Romagna, the PD's coalition partner M5S suffered yet another electoral disaster as their vote collapsed below the symbolic threshold of 5 percent.
Matteo Salvini had hoped to snatch another Central Italian region after its triumph in Umbria last October. In the campaign, the Lega leader overshadowed his party's candidate, Lucia Borgonzoni. He played on the "fatigue" of power in this bastion of the left where the Communist Party and its heirs have reigned supreme since the end of the Second World War. But his calculation turned out to be a losing one.
Salvini also minimized the Sardines movement, not realizing how powerful it has become. To ward off this possibility and compensate for the weakness of an amorphous Democratic Party, the Sardines movement was born last November. Recognizing itself in the values of the left but not in its traditional parties, it has birthed the slogan "no insults, no violence, no flags," as it intends to protect Italy from authoritarian and racist politics, as well as from populist propaganda on social networks. Tens of thousands of people have gathered peacefully in the squares of Emilia-Romagna in recent months as a show of support for the Sardines movement.
The turnout in the voting booths was very large, exceeding 67 percent. This marked a significant increase from the 37 percent recorded in the last regional election in 2014. This time round, Stefano Bonaccini was re-elected with a real majority. His campaign was centered on his image as a good administrator; a technocrat displaying a flattering record with growth in the region twice as high as that of the country and an unemployment rate twice as low.
"Bonaccini's victory is a blow for Matteo Salvini without calling into question Lega's strength which has taken root in regions in which it was previously absent. It strengthens the Democratic Party and gives oxygen to the government," Giovanni Orsina, professor of history and director of the school of Government at Rome's Luiss Guido Carli University said on Italian television on Sunday.
Orsina added that Italy was experiencing political polarization that was to the detriment of the anti-establishment M5S party, the PD's coalition party.
"We are witnessing a right/left bipolarization of political life which crushes the M5S which is undergoing a new electoral debacle. Its extreme weakness, while still being a main political party in parliament, could weaken the government of Giuseppe Conte. But Lega's defeat gives him a reprieve," Orsina noted.
Salvini was bullish in defeat, claiming that despite the loss at the polls, the fact that the PD only won by a slender margin in an area that has traditionally always been left-wing at heart was progress.
"After 70 years, there was a real left/right contest in Emilia-Romagna. In the past, the match was over before it even started. Something will change in Rome tomorrow," Salvini said to the press.
The Lega leader also tried to console himself by rejoicing in the victory in Calabria, emphasizing that the right-wing candidate won by a margin of over 20 percentage points.
According to many Italian political commentators, Lega's defeat in Emilia-Romagna could take the question of a general election off the table for a significant period time.
However, voting intention polls continue to show the Lega party at the top of the tree, with around 30 percent of Italy's population set to vote for Salvini's party in a general election. Salvini had hoped that a win in Emilia-Romagna would be the proof he needed to demand a general election.
The result in Emilia-Romagna could potentially give Prime Minister Conte the leverage to impose the PD's political agenda on its coalition partner M5S, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera suggested. M5S' political mandate has been significantly weakened by the devastating results in both Emilia-Romagna and Calabria.
Lega, with powerful allies such as Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia) and his tv empire and the post-fascist Fratelli d'Italia party, will wait to strike in the coming months. The next general election in Italy, slated to take place in 2023, is an eternity away in the context of Italian politics and it is very doubtful that the present government will be able to last until the official end of its term.
"Matteo Salvini is still very strong, even if he did not fulfill his objective of taking over Emilia-Romagna. The parties in government will hope that his fire 'will burn itself out' and that by 2023, if the coalition can last until then, a general election result will show a decline of the populist wave," Professor Pierre Vercauteren, a political scientist at Belgium's University of Leuven, told Sputnik.
After the Emilia-Romagna result was known, Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti slammed Salvini, firing another shot in a long-raging battle.
For the M5S, the real losers of Sunday's regional elections, the results will be a bitter pill to swallow. They could not capitalize on the momentum of the Sardines movement, and their charismatic young leader Luigi Di Maio announced his resignation on Wednesday.
"Salvini's northern Lega looks to minimize their defeat, but it must be clear to everyone that they invested everything in that election, from significant amounts of money to a constant presence of both Salvini (as if he were the candidate) and all the heavy artillery of the center (Forza Italia)," M5S Member of European Parliament Ignazio Corrao told Sputnik.
Corrao added that Salvini's defeat was a significant one, and praised the Sardines movement for bringing Italy's youth back to politics and on the PD's side. He also hit back at claims that M5S was finished as a political party in the country.
"We, at M5S, just have to be clearer, firmer and repel the onslaught of systemic forces that engulf us, also from within, with careerist infiltrators that we have encountered during the rapid growth of the movement of recent years. I am convinced that we will succeed," Carrao remarked.
An uncertain future awaits Italian politics. With political allegiance often divided along geographical lines, Prime Minister Conte will attempt to steady the ship and take the country forward. However, Salvini will still be in the background, exerting his influence on the political landscape.
"I do not feel defeated," Salvini said on Sunday, adding "I'll work twice as hard."