ROME — The nationalist leader Matteo Salvini suffered a setback in his campaign to trigger the collapse of Italy’s government and set the stage for a return to power when his party’s candidate came up significantly short in a regional election on Sunday that he had framed as a bellwether of his national appeal.
Mr. Salvini, the leader of the anti-migrant League party, had seized on the contest in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, which has a deep tradition of voting for communist and leftist parties. It was for him an opportunity to show his national dominance and to make the case that the wobbly coalition government of the Democratic Party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement no longer represented the people and that he did.
Instead, the left’s stronghold held, and Mr. Salvini was effectively repulsed.
“Today Matteo Salvini has lost the election,” Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Democratic Party, said after early results made clear the victory of his party’s candidate, the region’s incumbent. Until the very end, Mr. Zingaretti said, Mr. Salvini campaigned “to topple the government,” but the government has “come out stronger.”
The usually confident Mr. Salvini sounded remarkably low key in a late-night news conference, calling himself proud of his party’s performance and insisting he would work “twice as hard” going forward.
It wasn’t all bad news for him.
The candidate backed by Mr. Salvini won in the southern region of Calabria despite the fact that, for decades, Mr. Salvini’s party, formerly known as the Northern League, vilified the southern regions as lazy leaches on the wealthy and hard-working north. However, since adopting a nationalist message and national strategy, Mr. Salvini has campaigned vigorously in the south. The center-right candidate Jole Santelli, whom he supported, was poised to take more than half of the vote there.
But it was Emilia-Romagna that over recent weeks became the clear focus of Mr. Salvini’s, and Italy’s, attention.
Mr. Salvini campaigned feverishly there, hoping a victory would effectively ratify Italy’s rightward tilt and give him more ammunition in his calls for early elections, which polls suggested he would win. This was a prospect that thrilled Europe’s populists and menaced its establishment, but which also stirred a new liberal force in Italy.
Mr. Salvini’s campaign in the region gave birth to an explicitly anti-Salvini protest movement, which many discouraged liberals looked to with hope. Called the Sardines because they packed public squares with tens of thousands of people, the movement spread around the country. For weeks its leaders said that they were infusing the Democratic candidate with enthusiasm.
After it became clear early Monday morning that the left-leaning incumbent, Stefano Bonaccini, had beaten his center-right opponent, Lucia Borgonzoni, a Salvini loyalist, by a margin of around five percentage points, Mr. Zingaretti attributed part of the success to the Sardines.
He called them a “positive democratic shock” against the “aggressiveness of the right” and credited them with increasing turnout.
The apparent center-left victory in the north brought some measure of relief to Italy’s governing majority, formed last summer with the main goal of keeping Mr. Salvini out of power.
But if the Democratic Party hailed the results as a gift of breathing room, its coalition partners seemed to be running out of oxygen.
Five Star collapsed in Emilia-Romagna, dropping from the nearly 28 percent it scored there during national elections in 2018, when it became the country’s leading political force, to low single digits on Sunday. The humiliating defeat raised more questions about the party’s viability only days after its leader, Luigi Di Maio, quit amid plunging poll numbers, infighting and defections to Mr. Salvini’s party.
Five Star also performed terribly in Calabria, a region that once constituted part of its southern base.
Mr. Salvini, deprived of a victory he called potentially “historic” on the campaign trail, was left hoping that Five Star’s thrashing and near disappearance in the regions would be enough to destabilize the government and open the door to new elections.
“Tomorrow something will change in Rome,” he said.
Since dramatically losing his position as Italy’s interior minister in an unsuccessful power grab last summer, Mr. Salvini has waged a war on his old allies in Five Star and his traditional enemies in the Democratic Party. He attacked on the campaign trail, on social media, in newspapers and on television programs that seemed to hang on his every word.
On its own, Mr. Salvini’s League appeared to have taken more than 30 percent in Emilia-Romagna, a strong showing in a region where the League took 19.2 percent in national elections in 2018. It also won in some of the region’s municipal elections last year.
Mr. Salvini said that while his candidate had not won in the northern region, the League’s improved standing was a sign that the left was losing its footing.
“For the first time there was a contest,” Mr. Salvini said after the vote. “Having an open contest in Emilia-Romagna was an emotion for me, after 70 years, for the first time, there was a contest.”
But Mr. Salvini’s failure to win this contest meant it was less likely that he would soon get the one he desperately wants: early national elections. And while it perhaps gave the government more time, its leaders acknowledged they must now prove it can be effective.
“This government and this majority have to show that problems can be resolved,” Mr. Zingaretti said.
Emma Bubola contributed reporting.