May 31, 8:59 PM EDT

Italian premier's Democrats facing loss in key regional race

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ROME (AP) -- Premier Matteo Renzi's squabbling Democratic Party appeared headed for a stinging defeat in a key race in voting for governorships in several Italian regions, partial counting of ballots indicated Monday.

Vote tallies by the Interior Ministry from just over 10 percent of precincts in the northwest region of Liguria, long a left-wing stronghold, indicated the Democrats were trailing a center-right candidate who was hand-picked by Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-tainted, former conservative premier.

Draining votes away from Renzi's candidate for Liguria governor in Sunday's election was a left-wing candidate who was backed by a rebellious Democratic Party faction chafing at what it calls the premier's overbearing leadership style.

However, the Democrats appeared on their way to winning several other governorships. In all, seven of Italy's 20 regions voted for governors.

Consolidating gains was the anti-immigrant Northern League in its Veneto stronghold in northeastern Italy. In Liguria, the League teamed up with Berlusconi's candidate, further extending its influence. It also appeared to be headed for a strong second-place showing in Tuscany, a region that has been outside its power base, and where the incumbent Democratic candidate seemed en route to a wide victory.

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini had told voters that those who didn't cast ballots for his party were effectively supporting what he called an `'invasion" of Italy by migrants.

Straining its coffers, Italy has been rescuing and sheltering a relentless stream of migrants arriving by sea aboard smugglers' boats launched from Libyan shores. Last year, Italy rescued some 170,000 migrants, and tens of thousands have arrived this year.

Salvini hopes the regional elections will bolster his ambition to be Italy's main opposition leader, thus outstripping Berlusconi, who was forced out of Parliament by a tax fraud conviction stemming from dealings in his media empire.

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