ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suffered a setback in local elections on Sunday, with a weaker-than-expected showing by his center-left bloc and a marked rise in support for the right-wing Northern League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
With 22 million Italians eligible to vote in the biggest test for Renzi since last year’s European elections, projections showed center-left candidates well ahead in the central regions of Tuscany and Marche and the southern region of Puglia. The center-left also led more narrowly in the Campania region around Naples and in Umbria, one of its traditional strongholds.
However, in a blow for the 40-year-old premier, who had been accustomed to steamrollering his political rivals since seizing power after a party coup last year, the northwestern region of Liguria looked set to fall to center-right after a leftist anti-Renzi candidate split the center-left vote.
In Veneto, the eurosceptic Northern League was on course for a crushing win to hold on to power in one of its northeastern heartlands and its bluntly spoken leader Matteo Salvini also sharply increased its support outside its home base.
Projections of the combined result showed Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) with 22.6 percent of the overall vote in the seven regions, ahead of the 5-Star Movement on 19.6 percent, the Northern League on 12.9 percent and Forza Italia on 10.3 percent. Full results are expected on Monday.
Although direct comparisons are of only limited relevance because the electorate was different, the PD’s performance was far down from last year’s European elections, when it scored a record 41 percent of the vote.
Opinion polls, which have a poor track record in Italy, had suggested the PD would remain the biggest party by a far higher margin.
The local ballots have no direct bearing on national politics but the result was a sobering warning for Renzi ahead of potentially bruising reform battles in parliament in the coming months.
The 5-Star Movement of former comic Beppe Grillo looked set to take the largest share of the vote of any single party in Liguria, Campania and Puglia, even if it came behind other blocs in which several parties joined forces.
“This is a resounding result,” Luigi Di Maio, deputy speaker of parliament and one of the 5-Star Movement’s most prominent younger leaders, told RAI state television.
The Northern League also consolidated its status as the biggest center-right party, eclipsing former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and underlining the strength of anti-system parties in the eurozone’s third largest economy.
“Renzi and his government were supposed to defeat the anti-politics of Grillo and they’re not doing it,” said Renato Brunetta, Forza Italia’s parliamentary floor leader.
Renzi’s government needed a convincing result to maintain momentum for labor, education and constitutional reforms which have met fierce resistance from trade unions, the political opposition and the left wing of the PD.
However, internal PD tensions erupted on Friday when parliament’s anti-mafia committee released the names of 16 local election candidates suspected of corruption or organized crime links.
By far the most high-profile of the “impresentabili” or “unpresentable” candidates was Vincenzo De Luca, Renzi’s candidate for president of Campania, a crime-ridden southern region around the city of Naples.
Results suggest De Luca may win anyway, but the furor over his candidacy may possibly have weakened the PD nationwide.
The strong showing of the 5-Star Movement echoed the success of Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos party in local elections last weekend, while the Northern League probably gained from the reaction to the unprecedented numbers of African and Middle-Eastern migrants that have arrived on Italy’s shores this year.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Walsh