The left's humiliation in Bologna was the most startling result in local and provincial elections on Sunday, which were characterised by record absenteeism. Only 41 per cent of Italians turned out to vote.
Candidates of the right-wing Freedom Front, led by Silvio Berlusconi, also took the Tuscan town of Arezzo, another left-wing bastion since the Second World War, as well as the strategic province of Milan, where the right already controls the city and the regional assembly.
The loss of Bologna, which is to become the European Capital in 2000, comes two weeks after the surge in support for the centre-right in European elections. The defeat stunned the left, although the fact that the left- wing candidate failed to be elected at the first ballot was a warning signal.
As leaders began a post-mortem examination, commentators blamed local and national factors. "The butcher Guazzaloca has made mincemeat of the left," said the Rome daily Il Messaggero, referring to the profession of the victor. It added that infighting between the main left-wing party, DS (Left Democrats), and followers of the former prime minister Romano Prodi had cost them dearly at the polls.
The paper also said Mr Guazzaloca's victory should not be attributed to the Freedom Front but rather to his independent, down-to-earth campaign, with the slogan "A 360-degree candidate".
Mr Guazzaloca, 55, who left school to work in the family butchery when he was 15, is a well-known figure and for years held the influential post of president of the chamber of commerce.
For decades Bologna's thriving economy, low unemployment and efficient social services had been the pride of Italy's left. In the Seventies, when the Italian Communist Party still talked about class struggle, Bologna and other centres in Italy's central "Red Belt" were the living proof that the left was capable of working with business and running efficient city administrations.
In recent years, though, residents have complained that the quality of city services has declined. The crime rate, though still low, has increased and, despite the city's reputation for tolerance, there are concerns about an influx of immigrants.
But Gianfranco Pasquino, a political scientist and former senator, thinks squabbling rather than poor management of the city was to blame. "The bickering between Prodi and [prime minister Massimo] D'Alema and others within the centre-left have disappointed many of their traditional supporters." While most analysts believe the centre-left coalition has governed admirably under Mr D'Alema, many grassroots supporters feel the left has an identity crisis. The DS national co-ordinator, Pietro Folena, admitted that last week's announcement of further pension reform, violently opposed by trade unions, had also played against them.