He blew and he blew. But ultimately, he did not blow up the house. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Northern League, suffered an embarrassing setback on January 26 when his candidate in Emilia-Romagna, a region stretching from central to northern Italy, failed managed to wrest the post of governor from the incumbent operator on the left. Stefano Bonaccini, of the Democratic Party (PD), finished with more than seven percentage points ahead of the competitor of the League, dashing the hopes of Mr. Salvini to use a victory as a lever for the dismissal of the trembling Italian government , a coalition between the PD and the anti-establishment group Five Star Movement (M5S).
In another regional election, in the southern region of Calabria, the right stormed the victory. But that was hardly a consolation for Mr. Salvini, because the new governor came from the Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi, which today represents a form of conservatism less populist and eurosceptic than that preached by the League.
The result in Emilia-Romagna was a personal blow to Mr. Salvini. He had put himself at the head of the campaign and turned it into a plebiscite on his right to lead the country, as the leader of a party leading the elections since mid-2018. He had seemed certain of success. Although Emilia-Romagna has often been described in the campaign as a bastion of the left (notably by M. Salvini, anxious to give more importance to its expected victory), it has gradually drifted to the right in recent years . The left was lost in Emilia-Romagna in the last general elections of 2018, and again in the European elections last year.
Mr. Bonaccini’s reversal of this trend reflects popular support for a regional administration widely regarded as efficient and responsive. But there was also something fishy about his victory: the role played by the so-called “Sardines”, the last popular movement to come out of the well-composted soil of Italian politics, and which was born specifically to challenge Mr. Salvini . Although a master of social media, the League leader differs from other right-wing populist paladins by focusing on appearances in person. The sardines tried to beat him by packing the city squares (hence their name), but with people who rejected his values. They succeeded on several occasions and undoubtedly convinced certain voters of the left who, otherwise, could have abstained from voting for the PD. The participation rate climbed to 68%, 30 points more than in the previous regional elections in 2014. The role of the Sardines in triggering the progressive vote earned them an “immense thank you” from the national leader of the PD, Nicola Zingaretti.
As for the organizers of the ad hoc movement, they have sworn to remain anonymous. “We were not born to stay on stage. We went there because it was fair to do it, ”said a message on their Facebook page.
The two regional elections provoked a new humiliation for the equally unconventional M5S, whose leader, Luigi Di Maio, chose to resign four days before polling day. The candidates of a movement which won a third of the votes in the general elections two years ago scratched 7% in Calabria and only 3% in Emilia-Romagna.
This suggests trouble for the coalition government led by technocrat Giuseppe Conte, despite the help brought by the result in Emilia-Romagna. A grotesque imbalance now exists between the M5S and its nominally junior partner, a resurrected PD. The way it will be resolved will bring to the surface additional tensions in the M5S, already in disarray. And any further defection from the M5S could leave the government behind by a majority in the Senate, Italy’s upper house. This, in turn, could force early elections. Salvini emerged bloodied from Italy’s latest political scraps. But it has not yet been counted.