Matteo Salvini’s Unexpected Loss

Italian regional elections were everything everyone wasn’t expecting. What was supposed to be the fatal blow to the coalition government, reinforced the fragile alliance.

Matteo Salvini regional elections Italy

Italian regional elections were everything everyone wasn’t expecting. What was supposed to be the fatal blow to the coalition government, reinforced the fragile alliance.

By Alessia Peretti

When Matteo Salvini said that his anti-immigration party, the League, would have won 7 regions out of 7 in last weekend’s elections, no one dared to answer back. The alliance with far-right Fratelli d’Italia and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had indeed proven to be strong: before Emilia Romagna’s setback in January, they had won the last 8 regional elections.

This round, the center-right coalition led by the former Interior Minister won four regions and now controls 15 out of 20 regional governments in Italy. This may look like Matteo Salvini is one step away from stealing Giuseppe Conte’s seat, but since last general elections in 2018 he has not been further away from it.

There had been growing signs that Italians were losing their trust in the League leader. Both his party and his personal approval ratings are slowly declining in opinion polls, and now he failed to make the breakthrough he had hoped for.

Since August 2019, it’s his third attempt to bring down the government. It all started when he tried to push the allied Five Star Movement out of government and ended up in the opposition. Then, he failed to win the historically leftist Emilia Romagna in January and now the same happened with Tuscany.

Not only he has been yet again defeated by the coalition government composed of the Five Stars and the Democratic Party, but his leadership of the right-wing front is close to being put into question. Indeed, one of the reasons Salvini has gone from over 30% in opinion polls to 25% is because his coalition ally Giorgia Meloni increased her popularity among conservative voters.

What was supposed to be the fatal blow to the ‘yellow-red’ government was the first positive result they had in over one year in power. These regional elections were like an injection of hope for the fragile alliance between the two parties, although this result was mainly achieved by the Democratic Party. Despite ruling together, they just had one joint candidate — in Liguria where they lost, and where the Five Star Movement used to be more popular — while in the south their results were disappointing.

Tuscany

It wasn’t enough for Salvini to put all his eggs in one basket when he was desperately trying to win over the Democratic Party’s stronghold of Emilia Romagna and lose. He did it again in this election with the historically left leaning Tuscany and failed. If he got it, it wouldn’t have mattered how many other regions he would have lost, as this was the most symbolic battle. Winning it would have meant that the Democratic Party was weaker and that it was finally time for the center-right to rule Italy.

Matteo Salvini had chosen the loyal Susanna Ceccardi, who carefully followed his plan to change their communication style after the defeat in Emilia Romagna. He knew his extravagant, populist approach wouldn’t have worked in a difficult region like Tuscany. Their electoral campaign was surprisingly moderate and simple, and the polls were showing that this new attitude was paying off. In the end, however, the opponent Eugenio Giani defeated her, winning 48.62% of the votes.

Apulia and Campania

Before 2018’s general elections, no one in southern Italy would have voted for Matteo Salvini. The party he inherited was originally called Northern League and its main agenda was to separate the ‘rich’ and ‘industrial’ north from the ‘lazy’ south. However, after the former Interior Minister revolutionized the party with a nationalist (almost Le Pen-ish) approach changing its name to the more neutral League, the new coalition’s leading party started to stand for elections in the south, winning the regional elections in Sicily, Calabria and Basilicata.

In the 2019 European elections, the League reached 20% in Campania and 25% in Puglia. The only party that could have defeated it was the Five Star Movement, which has always been extremely popular in the southern regions. However, the constant decrease in polls of the anti-establishment party was clearing the path for Salvini.

Surprisingly, the southern region of Puglia was conquered by the center-left after going head-to-head till the last minute against the opposition. In the end, Michele Emiliano defeated Raffaele Fitto by more than eight points.

No one though had doubts that Vincenzo De Luca was going to be re-elected, especially after the COVID-19 crisis. Apart from becoming an international internet sensation with a video that was even re-shared by top model Naomi Campbell, the governor has gained a lot of consent thanks to his adamant attitude during the lockdown.

Veneto: a problem for Salvini?

Veneto was one of the 4 regions where Salvini won, but some critics believe it’s where he had the most humiliating defeat. Veneto is one of the League’s strongholds, but its governor, Luca Zaia — who was re-elected at this round — is considered to be Matteo Salvini’s main political enemy. They both belong to the League, but Luca Zaia represents a stream that doesn’t agree with the leader’s nationalist approach. In these regional elections, he presented his own electoral list, getting 44.6% of the votes, while the League party list only got 16.9%.

We shouldn’t forget that Matteo Salvini remains one of the most popular political figures in Italy. Last weekend he didn’t manage to give the final blow to the government, but his coalition still controls 75% of the regions in Italy.

He cannot openly challenge the Conte now, but his governors can. During the coronavirus crisis, many of them already questioned the Prime minister’s decisions and wanted to set their own guidelines in their territory. Now that Salvini controls 15 regions out of 20, it will be even more difficult for the government to have authority over them.

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