Why the Italian Elections Still Matter, – Bethany Elliott, Political Researcher
On 13th May 2018, Luigi di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star movement, addressed the press to inform them that he had agreed upon a coalition with the right-wing League party. While negotiations as to who will lead this coalition remain unfinished, di Maio noted that it had been a “productive day” in steps towards forming a coalition. This development marks a watershed moment in what has amounted to several months of inconclusive coalition talks, after 4th March 2018’s election delivered a hung parliament and no party was able to claim outright victory. Indeed, Italian President Sergio Mattarella had set the deadline of Sunday 13th May to break the stalemate which has dominated recent Italian politics. However, the populist Five Star and the Right-wing League were the two largest parties in March’s vote, claiming 32% and 17% of the vote respectively. With those two groups forming a coalition, they together will possess enough seats for a majority in both houses, offering them electoral power.
However, the success of these populist and Right-wing parties should be a source of concern for the international community. The Italian elections hold exceptionally close similarities to the phenomena of Brexit and Trump. The populist Five Star movement was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo, embracing an anti-establishment programme based upon opposing an allegedly corrupt political establishment and preferring direct interactions of “civic lists” and “citizen meet-ups” as opposed to more traditional press and political methods. Former leader and founder Grillo wholeheartedly embraced and cultivated his image as a maverick political ‘outsider’, adopting an expletive as his slogan and making jokes about London electing a Muslim mayor. League has a longer history in Italian politics, having been founded in 1991 as ‘Northern League’, forming a federation of several smaller regional parties in Northern and Central Italy. Under Matteo Salvini, who became leader in 2013, the party has moved from its traditional focus on Northern issues and even Northern secessionism in favour of Euroscepticism, Italian nationalism and opposition to immigration. More Right-wing than Five Star, League has also formed alliances with political forces who possess similar views, such as France’s National Front, the Netherlands’ anti-Islam Freedom Party and the Freedom Party of Austria. Paralleling the ‘Brexit’ movement in the UK, Salvini said in 2018 that the EU can “go f*** itself” as it has been “punishing Italy for fifteen years”. He has subsequently promised to take Italy out of the Eurozone, regarding the EU as a “bureaucratic dictatorship”.
One context for this move to the Right is the contemporary migrant crisis, with Italy currently experiencing a groundswell of anti-migrant feeling. The country has been particularly affected by the refugee crisis, with migrants often crossing to Italy by boat from North Africa. Boat launches from Libya have been especially prevalent, as the chaotic political situation has meant that borders are uncontrolled and citizens wish to escape the growing domestic turmoil. In 2016, 170,000 migrants reached Italy by boat, with the asylum system placed under great stress and 176,000 refugees living in reception centres as of November 2016. Between 2013 and 2018, a total of more than 620,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores.
This has led to a sharp increase in anti-migrant feeling amongst the population. Research conducted by the European Commission has shown that 75% of Italians feel negatively about immigration from outside the EU, with 33% possessing “very negative” views. After a new refugee reception centre was opened in Rome in 2016, with plans to welcome 250 asylum seekers, Italian women protested outside the venue, carrying banners reading “No security, no freedom” and claiming they felt unsafe surrounded by migrant men. Italian citizens who spoke with BBC journalists in 2018 expressed anti-Muslim and anti-migrant feelings, with one claiming Italy did not “need immigrants” and those who did come should only be Christians from Belarus or Ukraine, as he considered Muslims at risk of being “terrorists”.
Echoing the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, economic precariousness is again promoting this prejudice towards those defined as outsiders. Anti-migrant views have been demonstrated to be more prevalent amongst the less educated and more disadvantaged. The Washington Post has noted that anti-migrant sentiment has been linked to consistently high unemployment rates, as Italian citizens have found themselves struggling financially and therefore wondering why they should financially support migrants. Indeed, in the economically depressed town of Sesto San Giovanni, where steel mills have closed and work has become more precarious, local inhabitants have celebrated the expulsions of migrants with cake. Right-wing parties have been utilizing the fears surrounding this economic precariousness to increase anti-migrant feeling, with League representative Gianluca Cantalamessa conflating the issues, noting that there are “too few jobs and too many migrants”.
Such sentiments have not been confined to the population but have also been reflected in government discourse. As early as 2015, Italian politicians wanted to keep migrants off their shores, proposing the creation of migrant reception centres in Africa, to vet those who wished to come to Europe and return those deemed to be ‘economic migrants’ to their home countries. In January 2017, a directive sent from central government to all police stations ordered officers to increase their efforts to expel economic migrants. Conflating terrorists with migrants, the official directive noted that such measures were a response to recent terrorist attacks in Berlin and Turkey.
This was particularly evident in the campaign preceding March’s election. The Washington Post noted that even mainstream politicians adopted strongly anti-migrant rhetoric during electoral campaigning in order to benefit from this rise in sentiment, with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dehumanising migrants as “a social bomb ready to explode”, further promising that he would, if elected, deport 600,000. “By welcoming migrants, you never get votes”, noted Milan city official Pierfrancesco Majorino. Indeed, Rome-based journalist Guido Caldiron has discussed how politicians engage in “anti-migrant crusades” so as to boost their chances in local and regional elections, attacking migrants and then claiming that they were merely protecting Italian citizens from “an invasion of immigrants”.
Local politicians have also targeted migrants not merely semantically but also in reality. After becoming Mayor of Sesto San Giovanni, Roberto Di Stefano, of Berlusconi’s centre-right Forward Italy party, immediately began to crack down on those suspected of being illegal immigrants and particularly targeted Muslims within his local community. He began by permitting police to press charges for more minor offences and urged them to proactively check the documents of those suspected of being in the country illegally, himself defeating plans for a mosque in the vicinity. Migrants in Sesto San Giovanni told journalists that they felt they were being targeted and harassed by police, with a strong racial dimension, to make them feel “different” from Italians.
With such a political backdrop, both the populist Five Star and Right-wing League have prospered, utilizing anti-migrant sentiment to attract support. In 2017, both Five Star and League opposed changes to Italy’s citizenship laws, fearing that those changes may give citizenship rights to those who had recently migrated to Italy and thus cause Italy to “attract even more migrants”. However, cultural educator Marwa Mahmood claimed that Five Star and League were utilizing people’s fears of terrorism in order to conflate a citizenship issue with the migrant crisis. December 2017 witnessed Salvini utilising fears of migrants for electoral support, telling a rally that under his leadership refugees and migrants would receive “a one-way ticket to send them back”. In February 2018, his words invoking ideas of genocide, League leader Matteo Salvini called for a “mass cleaning” of illegal migrants in Italy. In 2018, League member Claudio D’Amico called for “zero tolerance” regarding those living in Italy without the requisite documentation. Meanwhile, Di Maio has called for deportations of migrants and a policy of “Italians First”.
Beyond migration, both Five Star and League members have expressed Islamophobic statements. Salvini has called Islam a “religion where women have fewer rights than men”, claiming that Muslims “preach hate from mosques” and – constructing Islam as an external threat – that “we need to protect our borders and our workers”. Race has also been a controversial topic for the parties. In January 2018, Salvini defended a League candidate who had claimed Italy’s “white race” was endangered, protesting that migration from Africa meant Italy was “under attack” with its “culture, society, traditions and way of life” at risk. League politician Cantalamessa has protested that he is “not a racist” but stands opposed to the “creation of a mixed-race nation” as “people here have had enough of all these migrants”. Echoing the murder of MP Jo Cox in the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, in January of this year a Neo-Nazi gunman shot at African migrants, purportedly in retaliation to the murder of an Italian girl by a Nigerian migrant. Beppe Grillo had already utilized the crime to stir up anti-migrant sentiment, demanding to know why the “worm” had still been in Italy to commit the crime and blaming the government for her death, having not deported her killer in the past. Gunman Luca Traini, who wounded six African migrants whilst wearing an Italian flag draped around his shoulders, was an open support of League and had even run as a candidate for them in municipal elections. Laura Boldini, the speaker of Italy’s Lower house, accused Salvini of having created an atmosphere of tension and hostility towards migrants, thus implicitly encouraging the attack: “Salvini has created fear and chaos and should apologise before the Italian people”. Traini reportedly shouted ‘Long live Italy’ and gave a Nazi salute during the attack. The Far-Right Forza Nuova group offered legal and financial support to Traini. League themselves have a difficult relationship with Fascism, having blocked legislation which was proposed in 2018 to make Fascist salutes illegal and to give jail terms to those who sold Fascist souvenirs.
Moving beyond Five Star and League, thousands of Italians have been joining self-described Fascist groups. In 2001, Forza Nuova had 1,500 members yet now benefits from the support of 13,000 and has another 241,000 Facebook followers. It therefore has nearly 20,000 more followers than the largest Left-wing democratic party. Meanwhile, CasaPound, which is inspired by Fascistic ideas, has around 234,000 followers. These Neo-Fascist groups have made particular use of social media, for example publicizing false news stories of rapes committed by asylum seekers. A particular target has been politician Laura Boldini for having proposed a ‘humanitarian’ solution to the migrant crisis, with one image depicting Boldini’s severed head, with the caption: “Decapitated by a Nigerian: This is the end she needed in order to appreciate her friends’ customs”. CasaPound have further staged anti-migrant protests in towns across Italy, placing anti-migrant posters on walls in Rome, Venice and Milan. In October 2017, Forza Nuova utilized the rise in immigration to stir up prejudice, hanging posters of a black man abusing a Caucasian female with the headline: “Protect her from the invaders. It could be your mother, wife, sister, daughter”.
Along with a rise in membership of Fascist groups and hate speech, there has been a concurrent rise in violence, with anti-Fascist society Infoantifa reporting 142 attacks by neo-Fascist groups between 2014 and 2018, further discovering 500 Italian websites praising or promoting Fascism. In January 2018, four North African men in the town of Pavia reported being physically attacked by twenty-five ‘skinheads’, while in the same month dozens of supporters of Forza Nuova invaded a public meeting on Roma culture to damage property and wound a female organiser. Film director Luca Maniero, who has directed a new biopic of Mussolini, claims that this susceptibility to Fascism is inherent within Italy, as the country never truly dealt with its Fascist past or “removed” their dictator, adding: “Watching what is happening today, in our country, I am convinced that if Mussolini came back he would win the election”.
Overall, one sees that events in Italy reflect wider political currents. While the rise in anti-EU feeling imitates 2016’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the sudden popularity of self-consciously outspoken politicians who seek direct electoral support by positioning themselves as outsiders to a corrupt political establishment undoubtedly echoes Donald Trump’s rise to power. One sees striking parallels with the 1930s, with Fascist groups gaining support and economic precariousness being linked with increased prejudice towards those perceived as ‘outsiders’. Thus, Italian politics are still of great importance, not merely for the country itself, but for Europe as a whole.
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Such sentiments have not been confined to the population but have also been reflected in government discourse. As early as 2015, Italian politicians wanted to keep migrants off their shores, proposing the creation of migrant reception centres in Africa, to vet those who
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