CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – Italy's liberal and left-wing voters are letting out a collective sigh of relief after the country's former interior minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini was defeated Sunday in regional elections in Emilia-Romagna, a bastion of left-wing politics in Italy.
Salvini, a far-right anti-immigrant politician, and his League party hoped a win in Emilia-Romagna would force Italy's weak left-leaning ruling coalition out of office – or in his words, “evict them.”
But Salvini's effort fell short despite holding dozens of rallies in the run-up to Sunday's election. The League's candidate for regional president, Lucia Borgonzoni, picked up about 44% of the vote. But her chief rival, incumbent Stefano Bonaccini of the Democratic Party, won with about 52% of the ballot.
“Stalingrad has not fallen,” read a headline in La Repubblica, a left-leaning national newspaper, on Monday.
The reference to communist Russia's defense of Stalingrad against Nazi attack in World War II highlighted the stakes in Sunday's election for those on the left in Italy.
For Italy, a victory by the League in Emilia-Romagna would have been an earthquake – a shattering of political certainty. Since the end of World War II, the region has been led by left-wing politicians and its principal city, Bologna, and its large university population are viewed as deeply dyed in communist and socialist sentiment.
Salvini put his heart – and his over-the-top and tough-guy rhetoric – into winning.
He declared he was going to “liberate” the region from left-wing politics and “evict” Italy's national government by winning in Emilia-Romagna. He campaigned nonstop across the region, focusing on small towns and medium-sized cities, places where his anti-immigrant, anti-tax, anti-establishment and tough-on-crime message plays well in a region that is rich and without major social problems.
Salvini is Italy's most prominent politician and national polls show the League leading in popularity. Sunday's loss was the League's first defeat out of nine elections during Salvini's leadership, commentators said. Even this loss, though, can be viewed as a partial victory for Salvini because the League's haul of votes was impressive, better than it has done in previous regional elections.
“For the first time there was a match,” Salvini said at a news conference after the vote. “Having an open contest in Emilia-Romagna was an emotion for me, after 70 years, for the first time, there was a contest.”
But Salvini's forceful, even brutish, and unorthodox style of campaigning with a far-right message appeared to have contributed to his loss by stirring up opposition in a region with a history of left-wing street movements.
“His strengths are also his weaknesses,” said Sandro Iacometti, a journalist and commentator on Rai, an Italian television broadcaster.
In November, a protest movement called the Sardines sprang up in Emilia-Romagna to counter Salvini and it quickly took root throughout Italy. The grassroots movement called itself the Sardines because it wanted to pack piazzas with so many people as to look like shoals of sardines in opposition to Salvini. On numerous occasions, the Sardines did just that and the movement was seen as a big reason for high turnout of 68% in Emilia-Romagna.
Salvini campaigned as he has done elsewhere by calling for an end to immigration in Italy and accusing immigrants of making Italy more dangerous.