Immigration issue key factor in Italy’s elections

Many politicians claimed immigration caused a host of Italian problems, including with the economy and security.
March 02, 2018
Italian Northern League leader Matteo Salvini shows a rosary as he speaks during a political rally in Milan, Italy February 24. (Reuters)
Faith in the far-right. Italian Northern League leader Matteo Salvini shows a rosary as he speaks during a political rally in Milan, Italy February 24. (Reuters)

MILAN - Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have landed on Italian shores in recent years and when Italian voters head to polls to vote for parliament, immigration will be one of the most considered issues.

The increase in arrivals largely caught Italy unprepared. Unlike France or the United Kingdom, Italy does not have a long history of receiving immigrants and only began doing so in the last few decades.

The large increase of immigrants in such a short term led many to criticise the Italian government for its lack of managing immigration and integration.

As is commonplace when locals notice new neighbours with different complexions and religious practices, many politicians claimed immigration caused a host of Italian problems, including with the economy and security.

None has been served better by this than Matteo Salvini, the 44-year-old leader of the League (formerly the Northern League), a xenophobic and racist party that regularly speaks of an “Islamic invasion” in Italy.

Salvini’s “Italy first” message mirrors that of another Western populist — Donald Trump — and it has resonated with Italians frustrated that they are yet to benefit from the country’s economic recovery following the crash in 2008.

In Italy, any ruling coalition must receive 40% of the votes to be offered the chance to form a government. The Five Star Movement is the most popular party, opinion polls indicate, but it is not expected to pass the 40% threshold.

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, 31, has said the party would not join a coalition so there is every chance the Five Star Movement will find itself outside the government.

The most successful coalition, however, seems to be the centre-right coalition led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. While Berlusconi is banned from returning as premier, he is positioning himself as a moderate force in Italian politics and a kingmaker.

His centre-right coalition includes his own party, Forza Italia, and a few parties from Italy’s far-right, including Salvini’s League and the Brothers of Italia.

Should the centre-right coalition take charge, crackdowns on immigration would surely be a leading issue. Undocumented immigrants in Italy may become the target of public deportation campaigns if the words of players such as Salvini are to be believed.

Berlusconi has adopted much of the negative rhetoric from the far right on immigration and Islam. His group is polling in the mid to high 30 percentage points. That means it is unlikely the centre-right will have a chance to appoint a prime minister or form a government and other coalitions will look to form one.

The centre-left is in disarray. The Democratic Party is polling lower than in the last elections and a leftist wing of the party split away after tiring of party leader and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s policies.

“The composition of the new incoming coalition will almost certainly be decided, through inter-party negotiation after the results are known, rather than being decided by the outcome of the election itself, with a more-or-less grand coalition centred on an arrangement involving the centre-right Forza Italia, led by Berlusconi, and the centre-left Democratic Party being a possibility,” said James Newell, an analyst of Italian politics and professor of politics at Salford University in Manchester.

Berlusconi’s gyrations will likely see him split from the nativist parties to his right. In a coalition with the centre-left, he’s likely to adopt more moderate stances on issues such as immigration. It has deeply affected Italian society. Even the Democratic Party has toughened its stance and taken actions that have led to criticism from human rights organisations and activists.

“I think that the Democratic Party has had to take new stance vis-a-vis immigration,” Franco Pavoncello, an Italian political analyst and a professor of politics at John Cabot University, said. “It’s been a liability for [it] since [it] was quite soft on migration, so lately they’ve been more attentive to this issue.”

A smaller player who has recently drawn attention for a stance that run against popular opinion is the Piu Europa (More Europe) party of Emma Bonino. A long-time activist, radical and former foreign minister, Bonino is second in approval polls after Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

“Most of the other (political) leaders are making prophecies to reduce taxes and reduce immigration but this is not possible,” said Marco Cacciotto, a political consultant and strategist. “She is saying that these promises are not true and she prefers to tell voters the truth. She is having quite the success.”

Polls predict Bonino has a chance to receive 3% of the vote. Should she reach that mark, her party would be able to choose 20 members of parliament.

Bonino’s platform is pro-Europe and pro-immigration. She calls for granting citizenship to people born in Italy to immigrant parents, something fervently opposed to by the League and other far-right elements.

There has been talk of Bonino obtaining a government role. Corriere Della Sera reported that Berlusconi may put her forward as prime minister.

However, the Five Star Movement must be considered. It is a wild card and has largely worked better in opposition than in actual government positions. Analysts predict the Five Star Movement might have to form a multiparty coalition due to its opposition to joining a centre-left or centre-right coalition without leading it.

“I don’t think the Five Star Movement can afford to spend another five years in insignificance,” Pavoncello said. “They’re going to be the first party (in elections) and I think they realise they have to play a bigger role in political life of the country, which means I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to be part of a governing coalition or at least be in the sphere of institutional power.”

Five Star Movement’s support is far from fervent and many voters pick the party as an alternative to the status quo they feel has failed them. Analysts said this growing discontent must be listened to because what comes next would be worse.

“It might be something special because if the Five Star Movement cannot gain (a place in government) a certain part of the country could go on to vote with (more extreme parties) – fascists,” said Matteo Cavallaro, a senior election analyst for Quorum and YouTrend, a group that follows social, political and economic trends in Italy.

“I disagree with many of the Five Star Movement’s policies but if the Italian political class misses this chance, well, the next time it won’t be Five Star Movement. It will be fascists we will be dealing with.”