Surge of migration transforms political sentiment across Italy, energizes party
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 lessdeadly 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 antimigrant 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.