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.
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.
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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.
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).
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.
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:
Analyzing #Italy regional elections. Did #Salvini and his right wing forces loss in #EmiliaRomagna2020 show the power of the left or was his improved performance there and #Calabria proof of a right wing surge? pic.twitter.com/q9qGk9RIle
— Adam Rugnetta (@Rugnettanews) January 27, 2020