Explained: What is the Emilia Romagna election and why does it matter to Italy?

Why does the rest of Italy care about a regional election in Emilia Romagna? Here are the results and why they matter.

Explained: What is the Emilia Romagna election and why does it matter to Italy?
Stefano Bonaccini, the centre-left president of Emilia Romagna, celebrates victory. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

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.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

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.


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.

READ ALSO: 'Enough hate': Who are the protesting 'Sardines' packing into Italian squares?

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).

Who won?

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.

READ ALSO: Left holds Italy's Emilia Romagna in key regional vote

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:

READ ALSO: Luigi Di Maio quits as head of Italy's Five Star Movement

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Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

With Italy's next general election scheduled for September 25th, who is eligible to vote - and how can those who are do so?

Who can vote in Italy's elections?

Who can vote in Italy?

For the upcoming election in September, the answer is simple: only Italian citizens are eligible to vote in Italy’s general elections.

Foreign EU nationals who are resident in Italy can register to vote in municipal and European parliamentary elections, but national elections are reserved for Italians only.

Until recently, not even all Italian adults could participate fully in the process: just last year, voters needed to be over the age of 25 to take part in senate elections.

That finally changed with a reform passed by parliament in July 2021. It’s now the case that any citizen over the age of 18 can vote for their representatives in both the lower house and the senate (both ballots are held at the same time).

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

You don’t need to be resident in Italy to vote; Italian citizens living abroad can register to vote via post.

In fact, Italy is unusual in assigning a set number of MPs and senators to ‘overseas constituencies’ that represent the interests of Italians abroad.

These constituencies are split into four territories: a) Europe; b) South America; c) Northern and Central America; d) Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica. Each zone gets at least one MP and one senator, with the others distributed in proportion to the number of Italian residents.

Up until recently, there were as many as 12 MPs and six senators dedicated to overseas constituencies. This will drop to eight MPs and four senators from September, thanks to another reform enacted in late 2020.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy’s government collapsed in the middle of summer?

How can you vote?

While Italy has a postal vote option for citizens living abroad, Italians resident in Italy must vote in the town in which they are registered to vote (i.e., their comune, or municipality of residency), at the specific polling station assigned to them.

What's behind Italy's declining voter turnout?

Italian citizens who are resident in Italy can only vote in person. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

The lack of a postal vote for Italians in Italy is thought to be one of the main factors behind Italy’s declining turnout in elections, and a parliamentary committee on elections has advised introducing one to help remedy the situation; but for now, only in-person votes count.

READ ALSO: What’s behind the decline in Italian voter turnout?

Italians living abroad who are on the electoral register should receive their ballot papers (pink for the Chamber of Deputies, yellow for the senate) from their consulate in the lead up to the election. Their completed ballots must arrive back at the consulate no later than 4pm local time on September 22nd.

Those who haven’t received their ballot papers by September 11th should contact their consulate to request that the documents be resent.

Italians in Italy must have a tessera elettorale, or voter’s card, to be allowed to vote in person. The card contains the holder’s full name, date of birth, address and polling station. Every time the holder goes to vote, the card – which takes the form of a piece of reinforced folded paper – is stamped.

The tessera elettorale should be automatically sent out to Italians at their home address when they reach the age of 18; for those who acquire citizenship and move to Italy later in life, it should be automatically sent to their address by the comune where they are registered as a resident.

If the tessera gets lost, damaged, or becomes filled up with stamps, the holder should request a new card from their comune. 

When an individual moves towns, they should turn in their tessera in order to receive a new one from their new comune. For those who move house but stay in the same town, their comune should send an official slip confirming the new address that can be used to update their tessera.

Anyone who hasn’t automatically received a tessera elettorale and is entitled to one should contact their comune to claim theirs.