Salvini's power bid through regional vote looks to founder

MILAN (AP) — Right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini’s attempt to destabilize Italy's national government by forcing the left out of power in a key northern region appeared to founder Sunday.

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With 20% of precincts reporting in Emilia-Romagna, Democratic Party incumbent Stefano Bonaccini was leading with 50% of the votes in the regional president's race, against 45% for the candidate of Salvini’s candidate right-wing League.

Salvini was looking for more than a symbolic victory in Emilia-Romagna, which has been a left-wing stronghold in postwar Italy with unbroken leftist administrations for 70 years. Hoping to force new national elections, the firebrand former interior minister aimed to shake the weak governing coalition in Rome that formed last summer after he made a failed grab at power.

Bonaccini claimed victory in a speech to supporters in the regional capital of Bologna, saying the League tried to use the regional campaign ‘’for other ends,'' but that sticking to topics that mattered to voters — like health care, education, the environment — had prevailed.

‘’We invite the representatives of the League to pack their bags,'' he told the cheering crowd.

Salvini, addressing reporters earlier in Bologna, wasn’t ready to concede the contest, but his comments were far from the bluster of recent weeks.

‘’It is moving that after 70 years in Emilia Romagna there was a race,’’ Salvini said. ‘’Because ever since there were elections in Emilia Romagna, there was no discussion of the electoral returns that went more than three minutes because the game was closed before starting.’’

In another regional vote, the right-wing coalition won the southern region of Calabria, with more than a 20% margin over the Democrats’ candidate. But the new president of Calabria represents Forza Italia, not Salvini’s League.

In Rome, the head of the Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, gave credit to the grass-roots Sardines movement for its role in sidelining Salvini's Emilia-Romagna ambitions. He referred also to the significant increase in turnout in this vote -- to more than 67%, compared with 37% in 2014.

The Sardines civic movement was born in November with the aim of countering Salvini’s rhetoric, which they say is hostile to foreigners and undermines Italian institutions. Last Sunday, more than 40,000 people protested in the capital of Emilia-Romagna a week before the election.

‘”It is evident that the growth in the number of voters in the election is due to this positive democratic shock that this movement has given in response to the aggression of an extremist right that has shouted with the culture of hatred,’’ Zingaretti said. ‘’Thanks to this movement who helped this Italian democracy be stronger.’’

Bonaccini had found himself in the role of underdog in Emilia-Romagna despite a strong local economy and a favorable job rating. He ran against a little-known League politician, Lucia Borgonzoni, who lost the 2016 Bologna mayoral race, but Salvini made himself the real face of the campaign.

Analysts said a victory by Salvini’s right-wing populist League in Emilia-Romagna would have prompted a crisis in Rome, where the 5-Star Movement is in a shaky governing coalition with the Democratic Party. The government was formed last summer after Salvini, who was vice premier and interior minister, made a failed grab for power, collapsing the previous 5-Star-League government and losing his posts.

Salvini, who remains Italy's most popular politician in opinion polls despite the misstep, is looking for ways to force new elections, betting on a national victory.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte had said his government was determined to complete its mandate until 2023, no matter the outcome of Sunday’s vote. But the 5-Star Movement had miserable showings in both regions Sunday, which could be a destabilizing factor especially after Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio resigned as political leader earlier this month.

Political analyst Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy said the outcome of the Emilia-Romagna vote had lowered the chances of the snap elections Salvini so wants.

‘’However, the likely thin margin of the center-left win in this traditionally leftist stronghold shows once again that ... (the) coalition government rests on rather shaky foundations,'' Piccoli said.