Thursday 17 January 2019

Italy braced for political turmoil - with immigration the key issue

Leader of Italian right-wing party Forza Italia (Go Italy) Silvio Berlusconi embraces Giorgia Meloni, president of Brothers of Italy party, at the end of a joint press conference at the Tempio di Adriano in Rome. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Leader of Italian right-wing party Forza Italia (Go Italy) Silvio Berlusconi embraces Giorgia Meloni, president of Brothers of Italy party, at the end of a joint press conference at the Tempio di Adriano in Rome. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

Tomorrow Italians will go to the polls in yet another European election closely watched across the continent for signs of another burst of the kind of anti-establishment sentiment that has been gaining ground in so many corners of the EU in recent years.

Whatever the result in the eurozone's third-largest economy - albeit one hobbled by slow growth, high public debt, and unemployment - it will have an impact far beyond Italy's borders.

If, as many expect, no party garners enough of the vote to have a mandate, it will usher in a messy period of coalition politics which will deepen the existing political dysfunction and further hamper economic growth.

If Italy's crop of populist parties gets enough votes to form a coalition, it would put one of their key demands - that Rome quits the eurozone - front and centre in the public debate.

Whatever the result tomorrow, the next government is likely to take a tougher stance on immigration, anxieties over which have coloured the entire election campaign.

As in other European countries, anti-immigration rhetoric has become part of the political mainstream in Italy, the main arrival point for refugees and economic migrants who pay human traffickers to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

Last year 119,310 migrants came to Italy by sea, according to the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM). A further 2,832 people died or went missing en route. Those figures were the lowest in four years, the IOM said. In 2016, 181,436 people made it to Italy and 4,581 were recorded as dead or missing. In the last four years, more than 600,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores.

In Genoa - a city where in the late 19th and early 20th century poor Italian emigrants to the US began their transatlantic journey - last year I heard concerns from locals about how their city was now shaped more by the arrival of migrants, particularly from north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, than emigration. According to one local study, one in 10 residents of the city is foreign-born.

Genoa is the hometown of Beppe Grillo, a former comedian who stepped down last year as leader of the populist 5-Star Movement, whose platform includes strong anti-immigration messaging. The 5-Star Movement has done well in recent polls, though it suffered an unexpected defeat in local elections last year.

The extent to which immigration has become an electoral lightning rod was clear last month in the way politicians reacted to a drive-by shooting that left several foreign nationals, all of them black, injured in the town of Macerata. The attack, believed to be racially motivated, was carried out by a neo-Nazi with previous links to the staunchly anti-immigration and far-right Northern League party. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, while denouncing the shooting, also remarked that "immigration out of control leads to chaos, anger, social confrontation".

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi - whose right-wing Forza Italia party is allied to the Northern League - also weighed in, saying immigration was an "emergency" and causing "serious social alarm", while lambasting the current centre-left government's approach as a "social time-bomb".

Berlusconi - himself ineligible to run for office after a 2013 tax fraud conviction - has nevertheless taken to the campaign trail with gusto, with his party boosted this week by the decision of European parliament president Antonio Tajani to agree to be Berlusconi's choice for prime minister.

Tomorrow's ballot will see Berlusconi's pairing with the Northern League competing with the centre-left Democratic Party headed by another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and the 5-Star Movement now led by Luigi Di Maio, vice-president of the lower house of parliament. The final round of polls - published in mid-February as Italian law forbids polling just before an election - put the Forza Italia-Northern League alliance at more than 35pc of the vote, with the Democratic Party and the 5-Star Movement each with some 30pc.

But this election campaign has proved more turbulent than usual, and the ballot will be the first to test a new electoral system. Add to that a significant bloc of undecided voters - perhaps as high as 40pc - and it is no surprise many believe a hung parliament is inevitable. That is not good news for a country whose chaotic politics has resulted in it having 65 governments in the 73 years since the end of World War II. Further political instability will only deepen all that ails Italy - from its economic woes to its societal tensions - and the only winners in the long run are likely to be the populists.

Irish Independent

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