Matteo Salvini’s attempt to trigger a crisis in Italy’s coalition government by seizing control of the leftwing region of Emilia-Romagna appeared to have failed as exit polls in the local vote showed the Democratic party ahead of a rightwing coalition fronted by his anti-migration League party.
An exit poll from Italy’s state broadcaster showed a narrow lead for Democratic party candidate Stefano Bonaccini on 48 per cent of the vote, ahead of the rightwing coalition fronted by the League senator Lucia Borgonzoni on 46 per cent of the vote.
Other exit polls published on Sunday evening projected a slightly wider lead for the PD candidate. Results are not expected until Monday morning.
Mr Salvini did not immediately concede the Emilia Romagna contest early on Monday morning. “Having an open match in Emilia Romagna is an emotion for me, there was a match for the first time in 70 years,” he said, referring to the fact the region has consistently voted for leftwing parties since the end of the second world war.
Throughout the campaign, Mr Salvini had sought to turn the Emilia-Romagna regional vote into a national referendum on the ruling PD-Five Star Movement coalition, arguing that, if the right triumphs, new general elections should be called.
Exit polls showed that a rightwing coalition candidate was expected to win a separate regional election taking place in the southern region of Calabria.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that Mr Salvini’s League party is the most popular across Italy, but he has been unable to capitalise on this lead with a new vote since bringing down his own coalition government last summer in a failed political gamble to force the issue.
In the culmination of a fiercely contested campaign, which has seen Mr Salvini stage just under 30 rallies across Emilia-Romagna in the past week alone, turnout was significantly higher than for the previous regional vote, held in 2014.
Turnout rose to nearly 66 per cent compared with just over 37 per cent in 2014, as Mr Salvini faced the so-called Sardines protests of mostly young Italians who gathered in squares against far-right politics.
Emilia-Romagna is one of the country’s wealthiest and most entrepreneurially successful regions with multinational companies including Ferrari and Barilla based there.
Mr Bonaccini, who is looking to return as president of the region, has enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings of all Italian regional leaders, and has opted to politically distance himself from the national PD, using green, instead of red, as his campaign colour in order to focus his campaign on local issues.
Lucia Borgonzoni, a League senator, has instead been part of a drive by Mr Salvini to focus the regional election on the same national issues that he has used to win in other formerly left-voting regions such as Umbria, notably illegal immigration and security.
Following a campaign stunt this week where Mr Salvini rang on the door of a north African family in Bologna and accused their son of dealing drugs, Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the PD, accused the League leader of being “like a plague-spreader from the 16th century who goes around shops and businesses spreading fear, hatred and despair”.