In Emilia-Romagna, Democratic Party incumbent Stefano Bonaccini won with 51.4 percent of the votes in the regional president’s race, against 43.6 percent for the candidate of Salvini’s right-wing League, BBC reported.
Salvini, approvingly dubbed by Russian sympathizers as the "The European Trump," was looking for more than a symbolic victory in Emilia-Romagna, which has been a left-wing stronghold in postwar Italy with unbroken leftist administrations for 70 years.
Hoping to force new national elections, the firebrand former interior minister aimed to shake the weak governing coalition in Rome that formed last summer after he made a failed grab at power.
Salvini, addressing reporters in Bologna, wasn’t quite ready to admit defeat.
“It is moving that after 70 years in Emilia-Romagna there was a race,” Salvini said. “Because ever since there were elections in Emilia-Romagna, there was no discussion of the electoral returns that went more than three minutes because the game was closed before starting.”
Analysts said a victory by Salvini’s right-wing populist League in Emilia-Romagna would have prompted a crisis in Rome, where the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is in a shaky governing coalition with the center-left Democratic Party.
"Emilia-Romagna has sent a signal," Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti said. "Salvini knows how to talk about problems, but he doesn't know how to sort them out, and the people have responded."
His government was formed last summer after Salvini, who was vice premier and interior minister, made a failed grab for power, collapsing the previous Five-Star-League government and losing his posts.
Salvini, who remains Italy’s most popular politician in opinion polls despite the misstep, is looking for ways to force new elections, betting on a national victory.
Last fall, his League party triumphed in the central region of Umbria — snapping 50 years of leftist rule.
Much of the Salvini coalition's campaign in Umbria contained the messages loaded with anti-immigrant, anti-gay rhetoric and religious symbolism. However, a sticking point for many voters was that they promised to cut taxes and revive Umbria’s economy, which has been sluggish since the financial crisis of 2007.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte had said his government was determined to complete its mandate until 2023, no matter the outcome of Sunday’s vote. But the Five-Star Movement had miserable showings in both regions Sunday, which could be a destabilizing factor especially after Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio resigned as political leader earlier this month.
Political analyst Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy said the outcome of the Emilia-Romagna vote had lowered the chances of the snap elections Salvini so wants.
“However, the likely thin margin of the center-left win in this traditionally leftist stronghold shows once again that ... [the] coalition government rests on rather shaky foundations,” Piccoli said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.