- - Monday, June 4, 2018

ROME — Five years ago, Italy’s separatist Northern League party finished far behind in Italy’s general election, showing little national appeal and sitting between two parties with so little support that they no longer exist.

Today, the streamlined League is a partner in a two-party government coalition and, according to polls, may soon be the country’s dominant political force.

The turnaround rests on a Trumpian approach: an increasingly strong and vocal stand against migration that is proving an unexpectedly potent generator of votes.

“Migrants have become the central issue in Italy, and it’s clear Italy will be tightening the screws of migrant arrivals and on migrants already” in Italy, said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and the president of Rome’s John Cabot University.

Italy is on the front line of Europe’s migration problem: More than 600,000 refugees have landed on Italy’s shores in the past four years to flee instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Anti-migrant sentiment in Italy often has taken a violent turn. In the lead-up to Italy’s March 4 vote, six African migrants were shot in one afternoon by a former local League candidate who sported a Nazi tattoo on his face.

After nearly three months of contentious negotiations, that election resulted in a government installation Friday.

As recently as Saturday, a refugee from Mali was killed and two others injured in southern Italy, though there were no obvious connections to any political party. There have been multiple reports of less-deadly violence against migrants in the past few months.

“There is an increasing belief that Italy’s problems, whether slow economic growth, jobs, crime, whatever, come in part from the arrival of too many migrants,” said Gian Franco Gallo, an ABS Securities political analyst. “The League didn’t create the anti-migrant sentiment, but they identified it and made other parties follow suit.”

It represents a radical change for a country that until recently was considered among Europe’s most open. The polling company Opinioni reports that Italians in some surveys put migration as the issue they care about most — more than education, the environment or the economy.

Matteo Salvini, 45, a college dropout, is responsible for the change in the party’s image and electoral fortunes. Mr. Salvini took control of the party in the wake of the 2013 vote, dropped “Northern” from its name to broaden its appeal, and de-emphasized its central plank calling for more regional autonomy, which was seen as the north’s way of separating from the poorer south.

Mr. Salvini has not minced words when addressing the immigration issue. In speeches, he repeatedly tells his audience that “unchecked immigration brings chaos, anger, drug dealing, theft, rape and violence.”

Mr. Salvini and his party even managed to pick what may be a politically advantageous fight with Hungarian-American George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist and supporter of liberal immigration laws aired suspicions that the League may have received secret funding from Moscow, given Mr. Salvini’s past praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and support for better relations with Moscow.

While confirming Italy’s NATO commitments, the new government’s policy agenda calls for a lifting of EU sanctions against Russia as well as the opening of dialogue and partnerships, given Moscow’s economic, commercial and strategic importance.

The League “never received a lira, euro or ruble from Russia,” the party said in a statement.


The overall message seems to be gaining traction.

In the March 4 vote, the League won 17.4 percent of the vote and 73 seats in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies, a huge rise from 4.1 percent in elections five years earlier. Coalition partner Five-Star Movement, another anti-establishment force now suddenly given power in Rome, garnered 32.7 percent, but the coalition of center-right parties headed by the League pulled in a combined 37 percent.

Even more important, the League finished ahead of the Forza Italia party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi among the center-right parties, torpedoing the polarizing Mr. Berlusconi’s hopes of claiming the kingmaker role in the political negotiations to come.

Political analysts say the League’s fortunes improved dramatically during the messy formation of a coalition government, a testament to Mr. Salvini’s negotiating skills. While some of the European Union’s traditional powers have looked on with dismay and alarm at the prospect of a populist, anti-immigrant, euroskeptic government in Rome, the League has burnished its image as a plausible governing party among ordinary Italians.

According to Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, the League would finish in a near statistical tie with the Five-Star Movement, 28.5 percent and 30.1 percent of the vote, respectively, if a vote were held today. The poll found that the League is now bigger in at least three regions that the Five Star Movement won in March.

That newfound strength has translated into outsized influence in the emerging government. Despite having half as many seats in parliament as the Five-Star Movement, Mr. Salvini is co-deputy prime minister on equal footing with Five-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio. The League also has provided eight of the 18 ministers in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s Cabinet, including the Interior minister and the minister for European Affairs.

Mr. Salvini even went toe-to-toe with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and won after the EU leader warned last week that Italy should stop blaming the bloc for its own domestic shortcomings.

“Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy,” Mr. Juncker said. “That means more work, less corruption, more seriousness.”

Mr. Salvini accused Mr. Juncker of being “shameful and racist,” and the former Luxembourgian prime minister apologized within a few hours.

Two days later, a chastened Mr. Juncker was more cautious when asked about Italy. “I do not want to feed the accusations spread by populists that we are sitting in Brussels and meddling with Italian affairs,” he said.

But as the League gains public support and its leadership becomes more experienced, it could create instability for the government as a whole, Mr. Gallo said.

“If the League feels it will do better with new elections, it could make major demands from the government, which will either have to give in [to the League] or risk new elections that could finish with the League as the senior partner in any coalition,” Mr. Gallo said.

Meanwhile, the Italian public seems content with the new government despite controversial policies not just on migration, but also on the continued use of the euro currency, EU rules on government deficits and taxation.

“I have no problem giving these new parties a chance,” said Marco Alfonsi, a 44-year-old butcher who supported a small right-wing party allied with the League but who said he would vote for the League in future elections. “They can’t do worse than the governments we’ve had in the past, and I think it’s right that they want to put the interests of Italy before those of the European Union or of migrants from countries I’ve never heard of.”

Chiriac Tiberiu Paul, 56, is a Romanian who has lived in Italy for 24 years. At a crowded political rally Saturday, he was waving a large Romanian flag with a hole cut in the middle, a symbol of his native country’s overthrow of communist-era leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Mr. Paul said what was happening in Italy reminded him of what happened in his country nearly 30 years ago.

“I have always thought Italians have to be a bit more revolutionary,” Mr. Paul said. “Now it seems they are finally starting to do it. I think it’s a good thing.”

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