Voters in Emilia Romagna go to the polls on Sunday in a regional contest with national significance, as the anti-immigrant League party seeks to dislodge the Italian left in its historic stronghold and force fresh national elections.
Opinion polls showed a rightwing coalition fronted by a senator from Matteo Salvini League was neck-and-neck with the incumbent regional president from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
Mr Salvini hopes that by staging an upset in Emilia Romagna and taking control of one of Italy’s wealthiest regions — which has been under leftwing control since the end of the second world war — he can trigger a crisis in the ruling PD-Five Star Movement coalition government.
Since bringing down Italy’s last coalition government last summer, in which he served as interior minister and deputy prime minister, Mr Salvini has been relentlessly pressing for new national elections at a time when opinion polls show the League to be the most popular party in Italy.
PD leaders, however, have sought to play down the importance of the Emilia Romagna election, arguing that whatever the result it will not damage the stability of the party’s pact with Five Star.
Five Star itself is reeling from months of bitter infighting among its lawmakers, in part prompted by its leadership’s decision to forge a coalition with the party’s once sworn enemies, the PD.
Luigi Di Maio announced this week that he was stepping down as the leader, ahead of the Emilia Romagna vote in which the party is expected to perform poorly.
The contest is widely seen as a two-horse race between Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s rightwing coalition candidate for regional president, and the incumbent PD president Stefano Bonaccini.
The possible fallout — both national and European — from a League victory in Emilia Romagna has led to financial markets taking a close interest in what is normally a low-profile vote.
The consensus view among analysts and economists going into the election has been that in spite of Mr Salvini framing the contest as a referendum on the national government, a victory for the right would not be likely to cause an immediate crisis in Rome.
“Even if the centre-right League candidate wins . . . the political noise that would follow is unlikely to lead to a break-up in the ruling Democratic Party-Five Star coalition, and therefore trigger snap national elections,” Francesco Pesole, an ING strategist, said in a note to clients.
Others believed the political consequences of a rightwing victory was hard to predict. “If Salvini wins it will certainly be a blow to the government and could spell its end,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of the Luiss university school of government in Rome.
“But there are some who argue that a loss will cause the government to come even closer together to avoid elections, so it could actually strengthen the government rather than weaken it.”
Polls in Emilia Romagna open at 7am local time and close at 11pm, with exit polls released soon after and the official result due on Monday.
A separate election in the southern region of Calabria, also held on Sunday, is expected to be easily won by a rightwing coalition that includes the League, but is fronted by an MP from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.
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