Italy’s regional election results appear simple enough: three regional presidents for the right-wing bloc and three for the left. Yet behind this lies a far more complex picture.

Firstly, each bloc is comprised of a notable range of parties. The grouping on the right contains the far-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) and anti-migrant League (Lega), as well as the more conventionally centre-right Forza Italia (FI) and Cambiamo!, while the left-wing coalition includes the social-democrat Democratic Party (Pd) and the liberal Italia Viva (Iv), headed by former PM Matteo Renzi. The Pd currently governs in coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5s), a party built on widespread discontent with Italian politics during the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.

What is clear from these results is that the national populist wing of the right did not make the gains they had hoped for, although Brothers of Italy managed to secure a notable victory in the Marche region, previously a stronghold of the left for over fifty years. As Lega’s Matteo Salvini gave a press conference in the Tuscan capital on September 21, his backdrop gave away the disappointment of the results. Behind him was Florence’s Piazza della Repubblica, awash with crowds flying the Lega’s badge and “Italians first” message.

Tuscany has a long association with the Italian Left (the Italian Communist Party was founded in its coastal city Livorno in the 1920s), but this time the right looked like it could be in with a chance to take the region, which could have been proclaimed as a symbolic, historic win. It was tight, but the much-hyped campaign failed, as the Pd’s Eugenio Giani swept up 48% of votes to the Lega candidate’s 40%. The Lega’s vote was up by 10% from 2015 but it wasn’t enough to take the regional council from the Pd.

It is a strong result in what is historically a left-wing fortress, but it is now the second time this year that Salvini has failed to capture a left-wing region. In January this year, the League came second to the Pd in Emilia-Romagna, despite increasing its share of the vote by about 11%.

Salvini’s problems do not stop with his failure to provide the promised landslide. Fellow Lega politician, Luca Zaia, is rising in popularity, securing 75% of votes in Veneto, and is thought to stand for a “leghismo” (“League-ism”) set apart from the more stridently nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric of Salvini.

The leader has also been struggling in the ratings recently, as his home region of Lombardy was particularly badly affected by the pandemic, a fact attributed by opponents to the League’s pursuit of botched hospital privatisation in recent years. Such an overwhelming triumph for Zaia coupled with the Lega’s disappointment elsewhere could therefore lead to some soul-searching conversations around the party’s future.

The Lega is not the only party to emerge wounded from the election, though. The M5s suffered a serious reduction in the vote share: its highest share was around 11% in Puglia, but in all other regions they polled less than 10%, a catastrophic loss for a governing party. Pd politician Gianni Cuperlo has written in newspaper Domani that the Movement wanted to achieve a sort of “confused direct democracy” that has not convinced voters.

Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, is a Movement politician, but he is perceived as a more moderate, “technocrat” premier who does not share the more nihilistic anti-politics of other M5s activists. When party leader Luigi di Maio celebrated the “yes” vote of this month’s constitutional referendum as “historic”, this is to some extent a distraction from the party’s poor election performance. It must also be said that a global pandemic may put many Italians off voting for the anti-establishment M5s, as there is a renewed need for clear leadership and action to deal with the second wave of the Coronavirus outbreak.

That the centre-left has held on to power in half the regions will be seen as a victory of sorts, especially since the centre-right touted the possibility of winning all six regions in the early stages of the campaign. The Pd’s secretary, Nicola Zingaretti, is taking the result as an affirmation of the government’s work so far, and a renewed expression of faith in the Pd in particular.

This could lead to a rebalance of power within the governing coalition, which will have significant ramifications for the future reforms envisaged to follow the constitutional referendum. Still, Italy’s regional councils are now controlled even more strongly by Matteo Salvini’s right-wing coalition, which now holds 14 of 20 regions. To put that into perspective: it held just three in 2015.

The triumph of the far-right FdI in the Marche is cause for concern, while the decimation of Italia Viva throughout the country reveals how the Pd is essentially the only influential party of the so-called centre-left coalition. As long as this lack of unity among left-leaning movements persists, it is difficult to imagine the rise of the right in Italy being halted any time soon, although there is plenty of time to recuperate before 2023’s national elections.

The Covid-19 pandemic has given regional government a new-found importance, in Italy as elsewhere, which makes this month’s elections particularly significant. As Italy emerges out of the pandemic, there will be much scrutiny of how local governments reacted to the crisis, which may have wider implications for future voting patterns. While the elections were not a wholesale victory for either side, the populist right of the Lega and FdI (as opposed to Berlusconi’s traditional centre-right FI, whose only candidate was defeated by the Pd this time around) remains a powerful force in Italy that, while weakened somewhat, is far from being defeated.

That said, the centre-left will need to achieve wider appeal beyond its strongholds if it wants to stave off its opponents and open the possibility of governing without the M5s, while the Movement itself has the more pressing issue of preventing its own implosion.