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ELECTION

Salvini seeks to topple government in key regional poll

Italians vote Sunday in a key regional election which the far-right hopes will shake the country's fragile coalition government to its core and return strongman Matteo Salvini to power.

Salvini seeks to topple government in key regional poll
League leader Matteo Salvini together with centre-right Senator and regional candidate Lucia Borgonzoni on stage during a rally on January 18. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The wealthy centre-north region of Emilia Romagna has been a stronghold of the Italian left for over 70 years, but while left-wing values still hold sway in its cities, the right has been rallying serious support in towns and the countryside.
   
The last polls published before the pre-election media blackout showed the anti-immigrant League neck-and-neck with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which governs Italy in coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
   
Some 3.5 million citizens are eligible to cast ballots to elect the region's president between 7am (0600 GMT) and 11pm, alongside similar regional elections in the smaller southern region of Calabria.
   
The League hopes for a repeat of its historic win in October in Umbria, which had been a left-wing fiefdom for 50 years.
   
Its candidate in Emilia Romagna, Lucia Borgonzoni, 43, has been overshadowed by Salvini, who has held daily rallies and inundated social media with snaps of him sampling delicacies in the Parma ham and Parmesan cheese heartland.
   
Salvini infuriated the left on Saturday by breaking the pre-election silence — which under Italian law means candidates cannot campaign the day before a vote — by tweeting about the “eviction notice” he was set to deliver to the government.
   
The PD's candidate Stefano Bonaccini is the incumbent president and is hoping to win for his track record in the region, which boasts low jobless figures and is home to “Made in Italy” success stories such as Ferrari and Lamborghini.
   
He may also benefit from the youth-driven Sardines movement, which was born in the region just a couple of months ago but has fast become a national symbol of protest against the far-right.
   
But analysts say many local family-run, artisanal firms are disgruntled and feeling left behind by the march of globalisation.
   
Others say the traditional left has abandoned those it once sought to defend for big banking interests.
 
'Cling to power'
 
The League triumphed in Emilia Romagna at the European Parliament elections in May, becoming the leading party with nearly 34 percent of the votes, topping the PD's 31 percent.
   
Just five years earlier it had taken home a mere 5.0 percent, compared to the PD's 53 percent.
   
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has dismissed fears of a government crisis should the Salvini's party win, saying the election concerns the region alone and has no bearing on national politics.
   
The coalition's main stabilising factor is a joint fear of snap elections which would likely hand power to Salvini, whose party is well ahead in national polls.
   
The government “will cling on to power in the near term,” said Agnes Ortolani, analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
   
But a League victory would increase tensions considerably, with the PD likely to blame the M5S for refusing to join forces behind a single candidate — thus splitting the anti-Salvini vote.
   
And analysts have warned it could cause the M5S, which is riven by infighting and has been hemorrhaging members, to collapse.
   
Contested M5S head Luigi Di Maio resigned Wednesday in a bid to stave off a crisis — but political watchers cautioned that it may not be enough.
   
“If the PD were to lose another regional bastion after Umbria three months ago, it may conclude that it would have more to lose from staying in alliance with the ever-weaker M5S than from risking new elections,” Berenberg Economics said Friday.

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ELECTION

Italy defies virus for vote as far-right hopes to retake regions

Italians head to the polls on Sunday -- to the alarm of coronavirus experts -- for a referendum and regional elections that could weaken the government and radically reshape the political landscape.

Italy defies virus for vote as far-right hopes to retake regions
La Lega leader Matteo Salvini (hand raised) next to Susanna Ceccardi, the Tuscany candidate for the right-wing coalition. Photo: Carlo Bressan/AFP
Just a week after a Herculean effort by schools to reopen in line with last-minute Covid-19 rules, classrooms across the country will be shut to pupils and transformed into ballot stations for the two-day vote.
   
A triumph for the far-right in this fiercely fought campaign would sound alarm bells in Brussels.
   
It will be the first test for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's centre-left coalition government since it imposed an economically crippling nationwide lockdown to fight the virus, which has killed almost 36,000 people.
   
The referendum, on slashing the number of members of parliament — from 630 to 400 in the lower house, and 315 to 200 in the upper house — is expected to pass, though there has been a late uptick in the number of prominent 'no' declarations.
   
The cost-cutting reform is the brainchild of the co-governing Five Star Movement (M5S), but while its centre-left coalition Democratic Party (PD) partner and parties on the right are theoretically in favour, their support has been lacklustre at best.
 
 
Uncertain future
 
The regional battle is for governance of Campania, Liguria, Marche, Puglia, Tuscany, Valle d'Aosta and Veneto.
   
The right-wing coalition is set to easily retake Veneto and Liguria, and it could also snatch Marche and Puglia from the left.
   
But all eyes will be on Tuscany, a historic left-wing stronghold that might fall to Matteo Salvini's far-right League.
   
“If the left performs particularly poorly… Brussels will grow concerned,” Berenberg economist Florian Hense told AFP.
   
It will worry whether the national recovery plan Italy has to present to obtain grants or loans to aid its ailing economy after the coronavirus lockdown “will be ambitious enough, given the limited political capital of the coalition in Rome,” he said.
   
“And whether, whatever plan Italy comes up with, it will actually implement it given the uncertain future of the current coalition”.
 
 
Concern over virus
 
The poll is going ahead despite warnings against opening polling stations while Covid-19 case numbers are on the rise.
   
While Italy currently has fewer new cases than Britain, France or Spain, it is still recording more than 1,500 daily.
   
“The country is in a state of emergency; it is utterly contradictory to be massing people together at polling stations, particularly in light of the trend in Europe,” Professor Massimo Galli, infectious diseases chief at Milan's Sacco hospital, told AFP.
   
He said previously that holding the elections now would be “madness”. Some precautions have been taken however, with elderly and pregnant voters getting fast-track lanes to vote.
   
With older people potentially put off voting by the health risks, the left has been organising special transport.
   
One in three of voters for the PD and League are over 65-years old, according to Italy's Corriere della Sera daily.
   
Nearly 2,000 voters in isolation due to the coronavirus have also registered to have their votes collected, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
   
But fear of catching the virus from voters obliged to pull down their masks to allow them to be identified has seen a flurry of last-minute desertions by polling station volunteers.
   
Milan was forced Saturday to call urgently for 100 fresh pairs of hands.
   
Prime Minister Conte has clinched a behind-doors deal with PD leader Nicola Zingaretti to fight to save each other's political skins should the left should perform disastrously, according to the Repubblica daily.
   
That might not be enough.
   
“These elections are not going to topple the government,” Political commentator Barbara Fiammeri for Italy's Sole 24 Ore daily told AFP.
   
“But there could well be a crisis, whether it be Conte's fall, the forming of new coalition, or even a national unity government”.
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