ROME (AFP) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was licking his wounds on Monday after suffering a setback in regional elections which saw both the right-wing Northern League and comeback kid Silvio Berlusconi celebrate key wins.
Projections showed centre-left candidates ahead in five regions, but Mr Renzi's party paid the price of internal divisions on the left, which split the vote in Liguria and saw the north-western region fall to a delighted centre-right.
Sunday's polls were the first in recession-hit Italy since European elections a year ago in which Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) unexpectedly stormed to victory with just over 40 per cent of the vote.
While the premier's popularity remains high, the regional results were a warning of the threats posed in Italy by a rise in euro-scepticism and immigration fatigue, dissension on the far-left, and the phantom of billionaire Berlusconi.
"The League is the most serious alternative to Renzi in Italy today," its leader Matteo Salvini told Italian media after the party's candidate romped to victory over the PD in the Veneto region.
Political analysts singled out Mr Salvini as the election's real victor for winning back centre-right voters across the country who had been temporarily seduced by Mr Renzi.
But Mr Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party also had much to celebrate.
The 78-year-old media magnate is keen on making a comeback after a series of legal woes which saw him forced to do community service for tax fraud.
His candidate Giovanni Toti looked set to snatch Liguria after the left scored an own goal by throwing a far-left breakaway candidate into the ring.
- Rebels blame Renzi -
La Stampa daily's political analyst Michele Brambilla warned that "those who had given Berlusconi up for dead got it wrong once again. Toti is his personal masterpiece, his creation... Berlusconi is still alive".
But Pippo Civati, who heads up the PD rebels, blamed his own party's "shift to the right", which had seen it "lose consensus left and right because (Renzi's) centrist model does not work".
Mr Renzi had yet to comment publicly but was quoted by the Corriere della Sera daily as having told his inner circle that the party would need to think long and hard about "loyalty and ties of belonging to a shared political community".
Sporting a bitter smile, the paper said, he urged "respect for the rules and respect between all of us, for we're in the same boat."
Projections of the overall results in the seven regions showed Mr Renzi's PD with 23.7 per cent, ahead of the Five Star Movement on 18.4 per cent, the Northern League on 12.5 per cent and Forza Italia on 10.7 per cent.
Senator Altero Matteoli of Forza Italia summed up the feeling on the right when he crowed that "a united centre-right can beat Renzi's left. This is the real lesson". Others said a low voting turnout - blamed partly on Italians heading to the seaside for a hot bank-holiday weekend - had saved Mr Renzi from even bigger losses.
With 22 million Italians eligible to vote, turnout ranged between 48 per cent and 57 per cent depending on the region.
"In the end, Renzi remains in the saddle, while the populist, anti-politics wave - potentially destructive for the government - dissolves into absenteeism," analyst Stefano Folli wrote in La Repubblica.
Nonetheless, "it is more difficult for Renzi to govern" after these results, because it shows he is not invincible, political watcher Marcello Sorgi said.