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Italy centre-left set to rebuff League assault on regional stronghold

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s centre-left looked set to rebuff a strong challenge by the right in a regional vote, holding onto its historic Tuscan stronghold, early count projections showed on Monday, in a boost to the fragile coalition government.

As the initial count proceeded, the centre-left was forecast to hold on to three regions it already rules, while the right made one gain and stayed in charge of two other regions.

Earlier this month, the de-facto head of the rightist bloc, League leader Matteo Salvini, had predicted a clean sweep.

In a national referendum held alongside the local ballots, Italians voted strongly in favour of cutting the number of lawmakers in the upper and lower houses of parliament to 600 from 945, projections based on an initial count showed.

An estimated 68% of voters backed the measure -- a clear victory for the co-ruling 5-Star Movement, which has championed the reform, arguing that it would reduce costs and improve parliamentary efficiency.

“This is an historic result. We can go back to having a normal parliament, with fewer privileges and 345 fewer seats,” said Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, a top 5-Star official.

Italian sovereign debt spreads narrowed on the projections, with investors hoping the results of the Sept. 20-21 vote would bolster stability at a time when the government is battling the economic slump triggered by the coronavirus.

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In the regional ballot, the right easily kept control of both Veneto and Liguria, which it already runs, while the PD looked sure to retain Campania, early vote projections showed.

The right was on course to take Marche from the PD, but the centre-left incumbent led the field in Puglia, the heel of Italy, defying recent polls that suggested he would lose.

Most attention was fixed on the picturesque region of Tuscany, which is focused on Florence and is a centre-left stronghold. An initial projection based on very early counting, suggested the PD candidate led his challenger from the League by 4.2 percentage points.

Salvini had campaigned tirelessly in the region, as he had earlier in the year when he tried, but failed, to win another leftist bastion -- Emilia-Romagna. A loss in Tuscany would dent his hopes of trying to bring down the central government and trigger early elections.

The seventh regional vote that took place over the past two days was in the tiny, French-speaking Valle D’Aosta. It has its own party system and a League-backed list was seen in front, a RAI exit poll said.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer, Angelo Amante and Giuseppe Fonte, editing by Gavin Jones and Philippa Fletcher