Seeking path back to power, Salvini targets Italian left's fiefdom

* Far-right League leader puts focus on Emilia Romagna

* Salvini hopes election win there would topple Rome govt

* Northern region is one of Italy's richest

* Has been run by Democratic Party for 75 years

By Crispian Balmer

BOLOGNA, Italy, Jan 21 (Reuters) - In a country where governments have a life expectancy of barely a year, the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna has been a beacon of stability, run non-stop by the left for almost 75 years.

But this rare constant in a volatile political landscape could crumble on Jan. 26, when far-right League leader Matteo Salvini hopes to pull off a historic regional election victory over the incumbent Democratic Party (PD).

A win for Salvini would resonate far beyond the boundaries of this wealthy powerhouse, home to Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese.

He hopes the shockwaves would be enough to topple Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's fragile government that links the PD with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, triggering a national vote that would likely see the right take power.

"With victory in my pocket, I will issue Conte with an eviction order," Salvini told thousands of flag-waving supporters on Saturday in Ferrari's home town of Maranello.

Government ministers deny that defeat in Emilia Romagna would jeopardise the coalition, but they acknowledge it would rattle the ruling parties and bolster Salvini's rise.

Before a poll blackout came into force a week ago, PD incumbent Stefano Bonaccini stood neck-and-neck with the League's candidate for regional governor, Lucia Borgonzoni.

The PD hopes Bonaccini's high personal approval rating of around 70% will win the day in a region that has seen unemployment fall to 5%, roughly half the national average.

"We don't have any big problems here. We are much better off than most of Italy. There is no need for change," said Angelo Panfiglio, a pensioner in regional capital Bologna, home to Europe's oldest university.


But while Italy's third wealthiest city will almost certainly stay true to the PD, Salvini's anti-immigrant, anti-European message is attracting support in outlying communities, as is his pledge to slash taxes.

"I just want change," said Mauro Detto, 49, an entrepreneur wrapped up against the cold at the Maranello rally. "They tax the very air we breathe. I don't want to pay them anymore."

The League has been eroding the PD's grip on the region.

"The shift to the right is down to Salvini," said the League's Tommaso Fiazza who, aged 20, became Italy's youngest mayor in Fontevivo near Bologna in 2015.

"There are too many migrants and not enough jobs, so they inevitably end up selling drugs, stealing, prostituting themselves. Salvini is the only person who tells it as it is," he told Reuters.

Looking to counter the League chief's unabashed populism, a grassroots, anti-Salvini movement has sprung up during the election campaign, earning itself the name "the Sardines" by packing Emilia Romagna's squares with rallies and concerts.

The movement, which is not fielding candidates, has galvanised League opponents but - to his evident delight - has also kept the focus firmly on Salvini.

The incumbent PD governor wants the campaign to focus on his achievements, including overseeing a flagship public health service.

"We are talking about Emilia Romagna. The League talks about bringing down the government and about Europe, about things that have nothing to do with here," Bonaccini told Reuters.


In a rare political miscalculation, Salvini walked out of government with 5-Star last August, expecting his move to trigger early elections. Instead, the PD took the League's place in the cabinet.

Plotting a path back to power, he is focusing on a raft of local elections due this year, filling his days with campaign speeches, selfies with supporters and folksy social media posts.

Salvini and his rightist allies have won eight straight regional ballots since mid-2018.

If they win Emilia Romagna, they will control all the northern regions for the first time, raising questions in the PD over the wisdom of remaining in an unpopular coalition with the argumentative 5-Star.

"It is clear the political situation is very fragile and could explode at any moment," said Giovanni Orsina, professor of politics at Rome's Luiss University.

"The more they lose these regional elections the more the situation deteriorates, because it will become ever clearer that the country is against the government." (Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino and Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and John Stonestreet)