Italy’s right wing League leader Matteo Salvini failed to overturn decades of left of centre rule in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna last Sunday.
The election brought relief to the embattled national government.
Incumbent Democratic Party (PD) governor Stefano Bonaccini won 51.4 percent of the vote.
That compares to 43.7 percent for the candidate backed by the League and its far right allies.
Turnout in the key region was around 67 percent compared with 37 percent in 2014. This is partially due to mobilisations by the anti-populist Sardines movement.
The League triumphed in Emilia-Romagna in European Parliament elections last May.
It became the leading party with nearly 34 percent of the votes, topping the PD’s 31 percent.
Just five years earlier it had got 5 percent, compared to the PD’s 53 percent.
Salvini had campaigned relentlessly and on a racist basis in the region since the start of the year.
Last week in Bologna, in front of TV cameras, he rang the doorbell of an apartment where a Tunisian family had lived for many years.
Salvini asked them if they were drug dealers.
His rightist bloc secured a resounding victory in a separate regional election on Sunday in the southern region of Calabria.
While the PD dodged disaster its coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, won just 3.5 percent of the vote in Emilia-Romagna and just over 7 percent in Calabria.
The party was the largest group in 2018 national elections, winning 33 percent. But recent months have seen its leader Luigi Di Maio resign and its support slide.
Salvini walked out of government with 5-Star last August, expecting to trigger a national election that polls predicted he would win. Instead, 5-Star joined up with the PD and shunted him into opposition.
Looking to exact revenge, Salvini has since concentrated all his efforts on winning a stream of local votes.
The right has now won nine regional elections since March 2018, while chalking up just the one loss in Emilia-Romagna.
Unfortunately Salvini’s anti-immigrant, anti-European message is popular. And the alternative offered by the mainstream is what opened up the space for the far right in the first place.
The main thing holding the current national coalition together is a fear of snap elections. These would likely hand victory to Salvini, whose party is well ahead in national polls.
The Sardines—a liberal grassroots movement promoting “civility”—has mobilised tens of thousands of people against Salvini.
They have packed squares across the country tightly, like a can of sardines. By putting people on the streets against Salvini they are a positive sign.
And they have just about avoided being simply a promotional movement for the government.
They will meet in March and may launch a political party.