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Italian premier’s party claims victory in 5 of 7 regions

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi arrives at a polling station in Pontassieve, near Florence, Italy Sunday, May 31, 2015. Italians vote for governorships in several regions and posts in dozens of municipalities in what is being seen as a partial test of Premier Matteo Renzi's grip on his oft-squabbling Democratic Party. (AP Photo/Francesco Bellini)

MILAN (AP) — Italian Premier Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party claimed victory Monday in five of seven regions that voted for new leaders, but the real winner was the anti-Europe and once-regional Northern League that showed strong gains nationally.

The votes for presidents of seven Italian regions Sunday was marred by low turnout, with just half of eligible voters participating during what was for many a long holiday weekend.

The Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, maintained control of the northeastern region Veneto, its traditional turf, with a two-to-one victory over the Democratic Party candidate. It also backed a candidate from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in Liguria, securing his victory in the northwestern region that has long been a Democratic Party stronghold.

Italy’s constitution gives regions power over such areas as health, environment and energy, although reforms proposed by Renzi would limit their scope.

Salvini’s showing put him in a position to claim leadership of the center-right from a weakened Berlusconi, said Wolfango Piccoli, a political analyst at Teneo Intelligence. Berlusconi’s political fortunes have been weakened by a tax fraud conviction.

“The result shows the emergence of a new leader on the center-right: Salvini,” Piccoli said. “There are basically two Matteos in Italian politics. Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini.”

The results indicated Salvini had successfully transformed the party into a nationwide force from its original incarnation as a secessionist group with a northern base. Salvini campaigned heavily on an anti-migrant platform and against the euro, making Brussels and not Rome the enemy.

Comic Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement also showed gains on a regional level, and despite not winning control of any region remains the second political force in Italy after the Democratic Party.

Despite heading to five victories, Renzi failed to show the same strength as during last year’s European Parliament elections. His Democratic Party lost in Liguria largely due to a split in the party, and the victory in central Umbria was tighter than expected, Piccoli said. The Democratic party also won Renzi’s home region of Tuscany, the central region of Marche and the southern regions of Puglia and Campania.

Renzi did not immediately comment on the results, flying off to visit Italian troops in Afghanistan.

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