'European Trump' Matteo Salvini Narrowly Defeated in Key Italian Vote, But Results Remain Underwhelming for Ruling Centrist Coalition

The sound defeat of the far-right Northern League in one of Italy's wealthiest and most liberal regions during Sunday's regional elections was reassuring news for the fractious centrist government in Rome, experts told Newsweek. Questions about the coalition's viability remained, as one of the two key partners in the ruling national coalition, the Five Star Movement, came a dismal fourth in the Emilia-Romagna poll. The League also snatched a narrow victory in Calabria, marking another Southern gain for the traditionally north-focused party.

Polls in January suggested League candidates could win elsewhere in the country, paving the way for an eventual prime ministerial run by Salvini.

"As much of as a successful campaigner he is, Salvini has a hard time where the democratic party still offers good government. This is reassuring for the national government," Filippo Taddei, a professor of international economics at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Bologna, told Newsweek.

He added: "In the regional election in Emilia-Romagna, the Five Star Movement came only fourth. It will now be very hard to discipline its MPs in Rome. This is the real threat to the stability for the national government: can the Five Stars bear the blow?"

The anti-establishment Five Star movement formed a new governing coalition with the center-left Democratic Party last year, without the League.

The Italian regional elections were cast as a referendum on populist movements in a country that has seen an increase in anti-semitism, harsh resettlement policies aimed at redirecting migrants to Spain or back across the Mediterranean, and the busting of a militant, heavily armed far-right movement.

Salivini, approvingly dubbed by Russian sympathizers as the "The European Trump," pinned high hopes on flipping Emilia-Romagna, a longtime liberal bastion in the centre of the country and the second-largest region by population. But voter turnout doubled that of the previous election in 2014, bolstered, many believe, the resentment of Salvini and the prominence in the region of the so-called "Sardines" movement, which jams central squares in Italian cities with mass rallies against the far right.

"Elections in Emilia-Romagna marked the defeat of the Five Star Movement," Arturo Varvelli, the head of the Rome office and senior policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Newsweek. "[Salvini] focused heavily on Emilia Romagna's campaign, putting its own personality at the center of it, but did not managed to win because of the strong mobilization of citizens that went voting."

The incumbent, Stefano Bonaccini, retained his seat by a margin of 5 percent. He was backed by the business lobby, cultural leaders, a prominent Catholic cardinal and the rector of the University of Bologna who, in the days leading up to the election reiterated the region's message of stability and prosperity "Philip Morris has invested here, Audi as well, Lamborghini has relaunched," Fabio Roversi Monaco told Corriere Della Sera. "Bologna holds because things are going well."