Explained: What is the Emilia Romagna election and why does it matter to Italy?

Why does the rest of Italy care about a regional election in Emilia Romagna? Here are the results and why they matter.

Explained: What is the Emilia Romagna election and why does it matter to Italy?
Stefano Bonaccini, the centre-left president of Emilia Romagna, celebrates victory. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Who was voting and what for?

The residents of Emilia Romagna, the central-north region that includes Bologna, voted on Sunday for a regional president – roughly the equivalent of a state governor in the US.

The regional president appoints and heads a committee of councillors that help govern the region. There is also a regional parliament elected separately by voters.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Some 3.5 million people were eligible to vote in Emilia Romagna's poll for regional president, which usually takes place every five years. 

The last election in November 2014 saw Stefano Bonaccini of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) elected with 49.05 percent of the vote.

What's the context?

Emilia Romagna has been a stronghold of the Italian left for more than 70 years. The wealthy region, which thrives on extensive agriculture as well as car manufacturing, was a key part of the 'Red Belt', the traditionally left-wing heartland of central Italy that has recently begun to shift to the right.

At European parliamentary elections in May 2019, the right-wing populist League went from a marginal force to the region's biggest party with nearly 34 percent of the vote to the PD's 31 percent. And in October, the League won regional elections in Umbria, another long-time bastion of the left.


League leader Matteo Salvini with centre-right Senator and regional candidate Lucia Borgonzoni during a rally. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

As the League gains ground nationally it increases the pressure on Italy's national government, a fragile coalition between the PD and the Five Star Movement (M5S) that formed after the League pulled out of its own fractious alliance with the M5S. The parties fielded separate candidates in Emilia Romagna instead of joining forces.

As the League rises in opinion polls, its leader, Matteo Salvini, is pushing for snap elections to replace what he says is a government that doesn't represent a majority of voters. The more regions that vote for the League, the stronger his case looks. 

In recent months, though, Emilia Romagna has seen the emergence of the Sardines, the non-partisan movement born in Bologna a few months ago that has since held rallies against populism and right-wing extremism all over Italy.

READ ALSO: 'Enough hate': Who are the protesting 'Sardines' packing into Italian squares?

An anti-League protester in Bologna a few days before Sunday's vote. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Who were the frontrunners?

The vote was considered a contest between the PD's Bonaccini, the incumbent, and Lucia Borgonzoni, the joint candidate for the League and its smaller allies, far-right Brothers of Italy and centre-right Forza Italia.

Borgonzoni was joined on the campaign trail by Salvini, who vowed to “liberate” Emilia Romagna from the left.

Pre-election polls showed the League neck-and-neck with the PD, which governs Italy in coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

Who won?

Bonaccini was re-elected with 51.36 percent of the vote, keeping the regional committee in the PD's hands for another term.

Borgonzoni won 43.68 percent, compared to 29.85 percent won by the same right-wing coalition in 2014.

READ ALSO: Left holds Italy's Emilia Romagna in key regional vote

The M5S, which won 13.31 percent in 2014, saw its support collapse to 3.5 percent.

Turnout was 67 percent, close to double the 37 percent of voters who took part in 2014.

So it was a defeat for Salvini?

Yes, in that he didn't make history by turning Emilia Romagna to the right. 

That isn't promising for the six other regional elections coming up in the first half of this year, including in Tuscany and Puglia, where the League is hoping to make in-roads.

But his right-wing coalition gained ground and exposed the gaps between Emilia Romagna's progressive, left-voting cities and conservative rural areas, where support for the right is rallying.

Salvini remained defiant even after the loss became clear, saying: “For the first time, it was a contest.”

Salvini and Borgonzoni give a press conference after the defeat. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Arguably the biggest loser was the Five Star Movement. Corriere Della Sera editorialist Massimo Franco wrote that the party suffered an “annihilation”, saying its power was beyond marginal and now “residual”.

Why does it matter to the rest of Italy?

Emilia Romagna turning to the right would have been a major shift in Italy's political geography, and a clear sign that the Red Belt had crumbled for good.

What's more, it could have sent the national government into crisis and perhaps even triggered its collapse. 

As things stand, the government has a little longer to work out its troubles.

The biggest uncertainty surrounds the M5S, which has seen an exodus of disillusioned lawmakers. Controversial party leader Luigi Di Maio resigned on Wednesday in a bid to stave off a crisis, but analysts say the party still risks fracturing.

It's also a sign that the Sardines, while not actually a political party, could prove a force to be reckoned with in Italian elections. The League's defeat in Emilia Romagna has been attributed in part to a high voter turnout, helped by the mass mobilization of thousands of anti-hate protesters.

Still confused? Here's a visual explainer created by one of The Local's readers and contributors, cartoonist Adam Rugnetta:

READ ALSO: Luigi Di Maio quits as head of Italy's Five Star Movement

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.