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13th Apr 2024

Salvini down, but not out in Italy regional poll

  • Matteo Salvini's campaign focused on anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

For Matteo Salvini, this weekend's regional elections in Emilia Romagna and Calabria were meant to be a crucial step in his comeback at national level.

"First we'll send them home on Sunday and then we'll give the government ... an eviction notice", the far-right political leader wrote on Sunday (27 January), violating campaign silence rules.

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But the outcome was disappointing for the secretary of the League party and former Italian interior minister.

Although Salvini and his allies, nationalist party The Brothers of Italy and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, won the majority of votes in the southern Calabria region, they lost in Emilia Romagna, one of Italy's most populous areas, located in the centre-north of the country, and a more important political bellwether.

"If the left loses in its own house [Emilia Romagna], of course there will be a problem at national level", Salvini had warned over the last few days.

But that did not happen, even though Salvini's League spent more money in this regional election campaign on Facebook ads than any other party, investing €143,000 over the last 30 days, Facebook data said.

The turnout in Calabria was similar to the last regional elections in 2014, but the number of Emilia Romagna residents who took part in the poll nearly doubled, from 37 percent to 67 percent.

The centre-right candidate, Jole Santelli from Forza Italia, will be the new governor of Calabria, replacing the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) representative Mario Oliverio, after Santelli won with 58 percent of votes.

But the PD's incumbent president of Emilia Romagna, Stefano Bonaccini, will stay in place after he got 50 percent, up from 44 percent in 2014.

Bonaccini beat the League's candidate, Lucia Borgonzoni, on 45 percent.

"Salvini has lost", the PD's national leader, Nicola Zingaretti, said after exit polls came out.

TV drug stunt

Salvini's campaign had focused on anti-immigrant and anti-European policies.

Last week in Bologna, in front of TV cameras, he even rang the doorbell of an apartment where a Tunisian family had been living for many years and asked them if they were drug dealers.

Emilia Romagna is one of the wealthiest and most developed regions in Europe, with the second highest GDP per capita in Italy.

Calabria is among the poorest regions on the continent, swamped in organised crime and corruption, and has one of Europe's highest unemployment rates.

The PD has led both regions over the last five years.

But while Calabria has had centre-right chiefs in recent times, Emilia Romagna has been a left-wing fortress for decades, prompting analysts to say that a Salvini victory there might have provoked national elections.

But that scenario is now very unlikely, at least in the short term.

The Italian government was sworn in last September after the pro-European PD joined the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) in a surprise alliance, which forced the League out of power.

It was Salvini himself who had provoked the crisis by pulling out of his M5S coalition in the hope of triggering an early election he thought he would win.

But he did not foresee that the PD and M5S would do a deal over his head.

5MS shine fades

For its part, 5MS was the biggest loser in Sunday's regional ballot.

Compared to 2014 elections, the populist party lost more than two-thirds of its votes in Emilia Romagna, which had also been an M5S stronghold from the time of the party's foundation in 2009.

The 5MS' popularity started to drop after 2018, when it first entered into government with the League.

In the run-up to the regional election, Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio also stepped down as 5MS leader after accusing colleagues of back-stabbing in an internal party melodrama.

And at the same time, a new force was born in Emilia Romagna - The Sardines.

The grass-roots movement emerged in Bologna in mid-November in reaction to Salvini's threat to "liberate" the region from the left and has managed to mobilise thousands of demonstrators.

After the vote, PD leader Zingaretti said "they [The Sardines] were decisive for the high turnout" in Emilia Romagna.

As the 5MS shine fades, The Sardines still have to decide if they want to become a political party or to remain a protest movement.

But despite Salvini's defeat in Emilia Romagna, he is still on the rise and a new PD-League duality will dominate the Italian parliament.

Salvini's party increased its votes from 19 to 32 percent compared to 2014 elections in the left-wing heartland.

And even though his man failed to win this time round, Salvini still dreams of a far-right governor in the PD's castle.

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