ROME - Italian voters thwarted right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini's hopes of turning an election in a key northern region into a springboard for regaining national power, nearly complete results showed Monday.
The center-left Democrats' incumbent won 51.4% of Sunday's vote for the governorship of the prosperous Emilia-Romagna region — a longtime center-left stronghold — with Salvini's League party candidate winning 43.7 %.
The Democrats are the junior partner in a wobbly coalition government led by Premier Giuseppe Conte.
The populist 5-Star Movement, which is Conte's main coalition partner, was humiliated in the regional vote. The 5-Stars, the largest party in Italy's national Parliament, tanked at some 3.4% of the vote.
The party's poor showing, was its latest setback since it triumph ed in the 2018 national election . It could likely worsen infighting in 5-Stars and weaken their clout with Conte, who has vowed to stay in power till the next parliamentary election is due in 2023.
Chatting with reporters outside the premier's office in Chigi Palace, Conte acknowledged that the 5-Star Movement's performance in the regional elections "wasn't brilliant, that's true."
Still Conte pooh-poohed concerns that the 5-Stars' dismal results would endanger his coalition's longevity.
"The numbers in Parliament are different," Conte said, referring to the 5-Stars' still holding a majority there, despite a rash of recent defections by lawmakers in the Movement to other political forces.
Salvini had played the Emilia-Romagna vote as if were "a referendum, pro or against, on the national government," Conte added. While the premier said he disagreed with that strategy, in any case, Salvini "comes out of it defeated."
It didn't help coalition goodwill that while the center-right stuck together in backing one candidate for governor in Emilia-Romagna, the 5-Stars refused to ally with the Democrats in that region, siphoning away potential voters for the left.
Five-Stars' most prominent member in the government is Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who last week stepped down as the Movement's political chief. Acknowledging internal Movement frustrations and back-stabbing, Di Maoi said it was time for the 5-Stars to decide on a renewed leadership in the coming weeks.
In southern Calabria, the only other Italian region voting Sunday, a center-right candidate notched a runaway victory on a ticket backed by Salvini's anti-migrant League party, the far-right Brothers of Italy party and the conservatives of former three-time Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
In Calabria, Jole Santelli's center-right ticket had 55% support, compared to 30% for the Democratic candidate. The 5-Stars polled just over only 7.3%.
The usually exuberant Salvini sounded more restrained Monday, but hardly stalled in his quest to return his party to national government and become Italy's next leader. He pledged to rebound in six more regional elections scheduled in coming months.
League candidates or those backed by them have triumphed in eight of nine regional contests, including some in which they wrested control from the center-left.
"Eight out of nine, it could be worse," Salvini told a news conference. "I'm a perfectionist, I'd have preferred" nine. Still, he shrugged off the disappointment in Emilia-Romagna.
"We have broad shoulders, we'll forge on," Salvini promised, declaring he had waged a "splendid battle" in Emilia Romagna, where the left has dominated for 70 years, earning the region the nickname "the Red Belt."
Gov. Stefano Bonaccini, a Democrat, had led a region where public health care, schools and other social services are generally considered to be excellently run.
"Good government wins," tweeted former Democratic Premier Paolo Gentiloni, who is now a European Union commissioner.
Determined that Emilia-Romagna would be key to a return to national power, Salvini had campaigned incessantly there, practically eclipsing his own candidate's visibility. The loser, Lucia Borgonzoni, was a little-known League politician.
Last summer, Salvini abruptly pulled his party out of Conte's first government, where the League had served as junior coalition partner with the 5-Stars. He had banked that the maneuver would trigger an early election that would catapult him into the premiership. Instead, Conte returned to power after his government collapsed by forging a deal between the 5-Stars and their arch-rivals, the Democrats.
Berlusconi, whose own political fortunes had been steadily slumping, particularly relished the victory in Calabria, since the winner Santelli came from the Forza Italia fold.
Berlusconi has disparaged the populist 5-Stars as dangerous for democracy and he gloated over their showing Sunday in both regions.
The 5-Stars made a "pitiful" showing, Berlusconi said, claiming they are "condemned to irrelevance" on the national scene.
Officially, the 5-Stars declared themselves undeterred by the results.
In a blog post, Movement lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies said: "This won't lead us to surrender, if anything the contrary is true."