Italian elections: How the far right is cruising on the anti-immigrant wave

As the March 4 election day approaches, Italy has become the latest European country to face an explosion in far-right political activity and sometimes collapsing into violence.

In a country plagued by high levels of youth unemployment and mostly stagnant economic growth, leading parties across the political spectrum have made immigration the key issue of the campaign. This move has provided a major opening to the Italian far-right and fueled street fighting between racist, openly fascist populist groups and anti-racists and anti-fascists across the country.

On February 3, Luca Traini, a failed candidate of the far-right League party (Lega, formerly known as Lega Nord, or Northern League) with a Nazi tattoo on his forehead, shot and wounded six people of African origin in Macerata. The police later seized Hitler’s Mein Kampf and a white supremacist flag from Traini’s home.

The shooting was met tepidly by leading political parties including former Italian prime minister and 81-year-old media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, head of a leading center-right party. He promised to round up and deport 600,000 undocumented immigrants and called immigrants “a social bomb ready to ignite because these people live by expedients and crime,” before backtracking a day later. Attempting to pass as the reasonable centrist candidate, Berlusconi has proposed “a great Marshall Plan for Africa and the Far East” to tackle migration. During his time in power however, Berlusconi was one of the first to publicly redeem the image of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and to invite pro-fascist, far-right parties to join his coalition.

The comments are unsurprising for the former prime minister who resigned in the middle of an economic crisis in 2011 and whose tenure was marked by scandal and corruption: now leading the “center-right” party Forza Italia, Berlusconi has entered into a rightwing coalition with the smaller and openly fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and the populist League. These parties have pledged to put “Italians First” and have singled out the country’s migrant population.

This coalition has already attained victory in the November 2017 elections in Sicily and is currently polling at 35.6 percent, according to the latest Ipsos polls. This is still short of the 40 percent needed to govern under the new electoral system.

A fascist and racist far-right on full display

Also leading the coalition is Matteo Salvini, the rabidly anti-immigrant head of the League. He has pledged to deport 500,000 migrants within five years if his party wins the election, pushing for an end to an “invasion.” Salvini has previously called for the razing of Roma camps and attacked Pope Francis’s efforts to engage in interfaith dialogue with Muslims. Salvini excused Traini’s Macerata rampage by declaring that “an invasion of immigrants will bring social strife.” The League has also collaborated with the openly fascist movement CasaPound in the past, which has since endorsed the party. Steve Bannon, the former White House operative and executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News operation, has alluded to his support of Salvini and traveled to Rome this week to follow the elections.

Salvini’s Northern League initially emerged in the ‘90s as a separatist party calling for the secession of the wealthier north, but recently dropped “northern” from its name as it expanded to the entire country. The libertarian-leaning, anti-European Union party remains predominantly popular in the north, and promotes racist stereotypes about Southern Italians and immigrants. Moreover, the League candidate for governorship in Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, has openly discussed the necessity of preserving “the white race:”

This is not about being xenophobic or racist, but about being logical, rational: we can’t [accept them all] because there isn’t the space. We need to make a choice. We have to decide whether our ethnicity, our white race, our society, should continue to exist or whether it should be erased.

He is currently in the lead.

This rightward shift is occurring in a violently and openly pro-fascist and racist climate. As compiled by the antifascist organization Infoantifa Ecn and published by The Nation, there have been 142 attacks by neo-fascist groups since 2014. In July 2017, an Italian reporter exposed the existence of an openly fascist beach south of Venice. It featured posters with fascist salutes, others glorifying Mussolini and rigorous signs calling for “order, property and discipline.” In November 2017, a group of skinheads disrupted a meeting of the migrant rights organization Como Senza Frontiere near the Swiss border. Forza Nuova, a fringe neo-fascist party, has been organizing “Bangla tours” in Rome to beat up Bangladeshi individuals.

While 100,000 people joined a demonstration against racism and fascism in response to the shooting rampage in Marcerata, clashes have been on the rise. A man putting up posters for the radical-left party Potere al Popolo was stabbed in Perugia. Demonstrators clashed with police in Turin, where anti-fascists faced off with neo-fascists during the visit of Simone di Stefano, a leader and candidate of the neo-fascist movement CasaPound on February 22 and 23. As many as 1,000 anti-fascist militants gathered in Bologna to protest a Forza Nuova rally on February 16 and were confronted by the police, leaving seven wounded. Meanwhile, a Forza Nuova leader was beat up in Palermo, Sicily, on February 20. With neo-fascists from Forza Nuova to CasaPound to the League party holding rallies and events across the country, security forces have been repeatedly deployed.

The inroads made by neo-fascist parties in Italy were foreseen in November 2017. A candidate with CasaPound, Luca Marsella, was elected as council member in the city of Ostia, near Rome. Marsella has openly mingled with members of the local mafia; in the aftermath of his victory, a member of an influential crime family even broke the nose of a journalist who attempted to interview him. CasaPound’s headquarters feature pictures of Mussolini, and they are named after the antisemitic and pro-fascist poet Ezra Pound. Members of the group can often be violent; a CasaPound activist murdered two Senegalese men in Florence in 2011. Their model of activism — described as fascism for hipsters — attempts to conceal their brutality by claiming to offer food and shelter to poor families exclusively of Italian descent and by building a social infrastructure of bars, bookstores and squats. Its curated front and media-savvy actions have inspired many other groups in Europe, such as the violent French group Bastion Social. In Italy, it has been at the forefront of the normalization of fascism.

The leading anti-establishment party outside the rightwing coalition, the Movimento 5 Stelle, or 5 Star Movement, which is expected to garner 28.6 percent of the vote, has also embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric, including under the current leadership of 30-year-old Luigi di Maio.  

In December 2017, the party further revealed its nativist turn when Italy was rocked by a fierce debate over the right of children of immigrants born in Italy to Italian citizenship. The proposal was fiercely opposed by far-right parties: but it was 35 parliamentarians from the 5 Star Movement and 29 from the center-left Democratic party who dealt the bill its death blow, by failing to show up for the vote.

Whatever party takes the lead, the lack of a clear frontrunner able to surpass the 40 percent majority needed to govern is likely, raising the possibility of new elections. About a third of the population remains undecided. However, the rightwing coalition will likely be influential and the 5 Star Movement appears to be open to forming new alliances. There is also a history of collaboration between the center-right Forza Italia and the center-left Democratic Party.

Mainstreaming of anti-immigrant rhetoric

In many ways, opposition to immigrants initially entered the mainstream through supposed indignation at Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rescuing migrants, falsely accused of human trafficking.

As an article in Jacobin retraces, NGOs (such as Doctors Without Borders or SOS Mediterranee) took on the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean after Italy dropped its own rescue program, Mare Nostrum. Spurious claims that NGOs participated in human trafficking of migrants spread from a right-wing think tank to conspiracy theorists to the mainstream media, bolstered in large part by the Northern League. The controversy further established anti-immigrant discourse as part of day-to-day politics: the 5 Star Movement started denouncing “the shadowy role of the NGOs,” promising “zero boat landings within five years.” Then prime-minister Matteo Renzi’s center-left government, notably his minister of interior Marco Minniti, started to increase deportations, decreased asylum grants and built more prisons for new immigrants, also setting more stringent rules for NGOs performing rescues at sea.

The anti-immigrant tone was thus set by the center-left Democratic party, laying the ground for the issue’s overwhelming presence in this electoral race. As a study funded by the European Union (EU) found, TV networks and newspapers in Italy ran hundreds of stories on migration. The media’s “ideological point of view [on immigration] leaves out, or even contradicts, the clarity of the numbers,” the study concluded.

In 2015, the European Union started to move toward cutting off migration routes to the EU rather than detaining immigrants upon arrival. In a criticized deal with Turkey, the EU arranged that immigrants arriving in Greece would be sent to Turkey in exchange for aid. Following its lead and because of the lack of a comprehensive EU policy on migrants, Italy outsourced its immigration enforcement to the Libyan coast guard in February 2017, alongside other African containment efforts. The policy has been devastating: armed militias in the city of Sabratha, for instance, prevented people from leaving. Various coast guard units were accused of human trafficking, violence against migrants and holding NGO rescuers at gunpoint. A May 2017 report from the European External Action Service made public by The Intercept found that 9,000 migrants were held in Libya in “inhumane” conditions.

As a result of the violent containment of immigrants, July arrivals in Italy dropped by 50 percent in 2017 compared to 2016, and August arrivals decreased almost fivefold. Overall migrant arrivals by sea in the country decreased sharply, from 181,436 in 2016 to 119,310 in 2017 according to the International Organization for Migration, making the political focus on migration seem even odder.

According to charts published by the Financial Times, the rhetoric conceals a more complex reality: Italy has a lower share of immigrants than most EU countries. The immigration issue only covers up a lack of ideas on issues the country direly needs to address. As the newspaper Il Messagero writes, the result is “the poorest and most desolating political campaign of the history of the Republic:”

The implosion of politics – from its traditional structures to the ideologies that have fueled it for decades – created an overwhelming emptiness. To fill it, some have thought it useful to revive the ghosts of our history.