Italian politics rarely make British headlines unless it's a story about Berlusconi's buffoonery and this weekend's local elections have been no exception. But they may hold a salutory lesson for the bigoted right elsewhere in Europe. The results have been anything but predictable, with surprise first-round wins for the centre-left in former right-wing strongholds across the north of the country, though it's less a victory for the centre-left – the mainstream Partito Democratico didn't do especially well, relying on votes for smaller coalition partners – than a defeat for the right.

Much of the blame is being laid at the feet of the unpopular prime minister, who hasn't been seen today but apparently exchanged an 'icy' phone call with Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Lega Nord. And it isn't unusual for a government that's presided over an economic downturn to be punished at the polls.

But the results may also be a promising sign that voters aren't falling for the right's rhetoric: attempts to blame the nation's ills on immigration and Communist conspiracies, it seems, just won't wash. On the other hand, voters everywhere use local elections to express discontent with the government and the real test will be the next general election, scheduled for 2013, when Berlusconi has said he'll stand down. Though if relations between the prime minister and the xenophobic Lega Nord, which he depends on for his majority in parliament, are as strained as people say, it may well come sooner.