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Left holds Italy’s Emilia Romagna in key regional vote

Italy's populist leader Matteo Salvini failed to win a key regional election and topple the country's fragile coalition government, official results showed on Monday.

Left holds Italy's Emilia Romagna in key regional vote
Electoral posters during the hotly fought campaign in Emilia Romagna. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The defeat was a major rebuff of Salvini and his nationalist League, which had hoped to score a historic upset and force snap elections in the regional vote in Emilia Romagna, but a high turnout favoured the incumbent centre-left candidate.

The Democratic Party's (PD) Stefano Bonaccini won 51.36 percent of the vote against the anti-immigrant League candidate Lucia Borgonzoni's 43.68 percent, according to official results released by the interior ministry on Monday.

The League's defeat now makes it harder for the party to win other key upcoming regional elections, such as Tuscany and Puglia, where it hopes to sway voters to the right. 

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

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 had rallied serious support in towns and the countryside.

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).

Turnout in the key region was almost double at around 67 percent compared with 37 percent in 2014, potentially thanks to the support of the anti-populist youth-driven Sardines movement. Some 3.5 million citizens were eligible to cast ballots to elect the region's president.

In the smaller southern region of Calabria, the candidate of former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, Jole Santelli, won handily with 55.71 percent of the vote.

For months, the League has been hoping for a repeat of its historic win in October in Umbria, which had been a left-wing fiefdom for 50 years. League candidate Borgonzoni, 43, was overshadowed by Salvini, who held daily rallies and inundated social media with snaps of him sampling delicacies in the Parma ham and Parmesan cheese heartland.


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

Salvini infuriated the left on Saturday when he broke 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.

“Arrogance never pays,” PD candidate Bonaccini said later in his victory speech, scoffing at Salvini's promises to “liberate” the region.

The PD candidate had hoped 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 — would translate into victory.

He also benefitted from the 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.

Still, analysts said many local family-run, artisanal firms were disgruntled and feeling left behind by the march of globalization.

READ ALSO: Thousands of 'Sardines' rally in Bologna ahead of regional vote


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

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 five percent, compared to the PD's 53 percent.

On Sunday, voter Andrea Setti told AFP he felt it was even more important than usual for him to cast his ballot, as the region's political “colour”, or allegiance, was no longer clear.

“Now you cannot really know which way it's going to go,” he said.

Fellow voter Lisa Zanarini, 31, said she hoped people would not be seduced by “easy words and easy promises”.

READ ALSO:

Editorialist Stefano Polli wrote in La Repubblica that Salvini will have to change his strategy if he hopes to prevail: “Even if the man doesn't seem capable of any other strategy besides rallies and TV talk shows”.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had dismissed fears of a government crisis were Salvini's party to win, saying the election concerned the region alone and had no bearing on national politics.

The coalition's main stabilizing factor is a joint fear of snap elections which would likely hand power to Salvini, whose party is well ahead in national polls. Analysts had warned that a League victory could cause the M5S, which is riven by infighting and has been haemorrhaging members, to collapse.

Contested M5S head Luigi Di Maio resigned Wednesday in a bid to stave off a crisis — but political watchers cautioned it may not be enough.

By AFP's Giovanni Grezzi and Ella Ide

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POLITICS

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.

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