Fear of migrants feeds growth of Italy’s far right

A plethora of rising political parties will contest Italy’s election on March 4th

Silvio Berlusconi: Despite his political departure in 2011 following a sex scandal and fraud conviction, he has re-emerged as “Italy’s kindly granddad”. Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters

Silvio Berlusconi: Despite his political departure in 2011 following a sex scandal and fraud conviction, he has re-emerged as “Italy’s kindly granddad”. Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters

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Matteo Salvini* does not pull his punches. And his supporters love his bluntness. At a rally in Rome, the leader of the Northern League (NL) earned his biggest applause echoing a poisonous anti-immigrant tone that has reverberated through the Italian general election campaign.

“I’m sick of seeing the immigrants in the hotels and the Italians who sleep in cars,” Salvini said to cheers. “This is the racist country.”  

He has argued that “unchecked immigration brings chaos, anger” and “drug dealing, thefts, rapes and violence”. Attacks on immigrants have risen sharply.

Yet Salvini may well be on his way to becoming Italy’s next prime minister after the March 4th election. A coalition deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia could see Salvini in the PM’s office as the irrepressible 81-year-old Berlusconi, though firmly in charge of his party, is temporarily barred from serving.

The migration crisis has rocked Italian politics and is shaping the election campaign. Italy absorbed more than 600,000 migrants over the last four years, with more than 180,000 arriving in 2016. Despite a slowdown in 2017 after the government made a controversial deal with Libyan militias to fight human traffickers, many Italian voters feel overwhelmed by the problem and abandoned by partners in the EU.

That reality, and the persistence of unemployment, particularly among the young, has fed a Eurosceptical and anti-migrant sentiment that mirrors the populist currents that have shaken the rest of Europe.  

Many far-right and even openly fascist candidates are surfing the anti-migrant tide. Some at least seem likely to end up in a governing coalition

The defeat of the Front National in France last year and the halted rise of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands created a sense that the far-right populist tide was beginning to ebb in Europe. But this has been undone by subsequent election results in Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany.

Now, in the EU’s fourth-largest economy, a plethora of far-right and even openly fascist candidates are surfing the anti-migrant tide. Some at least seem likely to end up in a governing coalition.

Anti-establishment message

There’s Salvino’s Northern League , now at 12 per cent in the polls, chasing the 5-Star Movement of former comic Beppe Grillo, whose anti-establishment message, combined with a strong anti-immigrant and Eurosceptical line, has the party at the head of the field on 27 per cent. The Brothers of Italy, inheritors of the mantle of Mussolini, are on 5-6 per cent.

The centre-right Forza is led by a risen-from-the-dead Berlusconi – who has also made political mileage from migration, calling the issue a “social bomb ready to explode” and promising to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants should his coalition enter government. “All these migrants live off trickery and crime,” he has claimed.

Berlusconi’s political resuscitation is remarkable. Despite a departure in 2011 under a cloud of sexual libertinism and a conviction for fraud, he has re-emerged, as one writer has put it, “as Italy’s kindly granddad, if one with a 32-year-old girlfriend, unlimited means and a television empire that helped him recharm politically important older voters”.

Berlusconi is happy to run his party from the sidelines, maintaining a firm grip and biding his time until next year, when a bar on his return to office will be lifted

And like Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Berlusconi is happy to run his party from the sidelines, maintaining a firm grip and biding his time until next year, when a bar on his return to office will be lifted.  

Forza is currently running at about 27 per cent in the polls, and will need to find a partner to create a majority. A deal with the Northern League would give it some 40 per cent on current showing, forcing the two to depend on Brothers of Italy, probably from outside government.

Berlusconi may try and reach over to the left’s Partito Democratico (PD), led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, whose resignation from the prime ministership he forced. It would be a most uncomfortable alliance but, with a promise of economic and political continuity, probably most reassuring to markets.

The floundering centre-left alliance should manage a combined 26-28 per cent. The Partito Democratico is on 22-23 per cent, and More Europe, Together Italy and Popular Civic List between 4 and 5 per cent. Free and Equal, a left-wing split from the PD, is polling at about 6 per cent and is most unlikely to have any truck with Berlusconi.

Wild card

The wild card in the pack is, however, the maverick 5-Star Movement, whose poll lead makes it a potential kingmaker. To date, contemptuous of all the mainstream parties, it has remained unwilling even to consider seeking out coalition partners. In recent days, however, the party’s 31-year-old leader Giorgio Di Maio has hinted that coalition may be necessary.

A governing alliance with the Northern League, the most likely partner for 5-Star, would create the most uncertain and unstable option for Italy. Combining an unproven populist party – 5-Star has made a mess of running Rome, so far the only place it has controlled – with an openly xenophobic and nationalist party has the potential to undermine stability, not only in Italy, but in the wider EU.

Both parties have spoken of pulling Italy out of the euro, though not the EU, and would certainly attempt to defy the union’s “austerity” deficit limits. But Di Maio has again been showing signs of tacking to the centre ground on Europe to win over moderate voters.

5-Star has also found a common campaign cause with the Northern League in championing a controversial anti-vaccination drive against what is known as the Lorenzin law. Northern League leader Salvini has tweeted that inoculations should be left to parents’ discretion: “Vaccination yes, obligation no.”

Health minister Beatrice Lorenzin has alarmed some parents, who fear jabs could be linked to autism and other side-effects, with a requirement that the number of compulsory inoculations of children rise from four to 10. The requirements cover 10 vaccinations, including diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox.

She has founded a new centrist political party, Civica Popolare, around the slogan: “Vaccinate against incompetence” and is calling on scientists to run to combat what she sees as fear-mongering. The issue could be difficult for post-election negotiations.

Hybrid system

The elections have also been complicated by a new electoral law dubbed the “Rosatellum”. Introduced by Renzi before he fell from office, it created a hybrid system, balancing proportional regional lists in parallel with constituency first-past-the-post voting, that was designed to favour the establishment parties.

Whether it works in practice like that is another matter. A party must gain 3 per cent of the vote to enter the parliament, which could prove challenging for smaller parties in an electorally fragmented landscape. But it is also unlikely to facilitate any of the big parties in winning a clear majority. Coalition politics is now hardwired into the electoral system.

With more than 40 prime ministers and over 60 governments since the second World War, stability and longevity have not been the hallmarks of Italian democracy

Italians have a long history of conducting national elections that result in short-lived governments. With more than 40 prime ministers and over 60 governments since the second World War, stability and longevity have not been the hallmarks of Italian democracy.

In European capitals, the poll will be watched with considerable interest. The continuing rise of the far right throughout the union is worrying for many, as is the decline of traditional centrist social democracy, for long the anchor of European governments.

Italy has a €2.3 trillion debt load and a third of all under-25s out of work, and its economic recovery is very much a work in progress.

For fellow EU states, the concern will be to see continuity in what is seen as the fiscally responsible approach of the current government of Paolo Gentiiloni. It has slowly begun to put Italy on the path of growth. But few of the myriad permutations of electoral outcome offer reassurance.

*This article was amended on February 19th. The original version mistakenly referred to the leader of the Northern League as Roberto Salvini.

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