Will a toxic campaign lead to a far-right Italy?

Italians go to the polls on Sunday in an election which could deliver the most far-right government in decades if a coalition led by former premier Silvio Berlusconi triumphs.

His partners include the League party headed by Matteo Salvini standing on a strong anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic platform.

At a rally in the northern Italian city of Padova this week Mr Salvini repeated his mantra of “Italians first” saying he would send illegal immigrants home but he has used much tougher language talking of “cleansing the streets” of Italy.

We put it to him that he is preaching the politics of hate and he told us: “I preach peace. I practise peace. I want a peaceful and quiet co-existence. Opening doors to regular migrants and sending back the too many illegal migrants here. I just want people who bring respect, culture and richness to Italy.”

Matteo Salvini
Image: Matteo Salvini could break away from the Berlusconi alliance

There are plenty in the crowd who share the respect and richness sentiment, telling us that immigrants without jobs should be forced to leave.

One man says: “So many immigrants come here and stay in hotels, in houses and don’t do anything all day and this isn’t good for Italy, it is not good for the Italian people.”

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Another says: “Salvini has good ideas. Good for Italy. There are lots of people without jobs and too many immigrants.” He agrees that immigration is the main reason he will vote for League.

Mr Salvini has clearly tapped into what are widespread worries about the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers entering Italy, mostly from Africa.

Hundreds of thousands have made it to the country’s shores in recent years and the current government led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has been forced to work with African nations to try and stem the flow. The issue of immigration is an issue for all parties in this election.

An election poster for the Europa party is seen on the side of a bus in Rome
Image: An election poster for the Europa party is seen on the side of a bus in Rome

But it’s the rhetoric that Mr Salvini has used during the campaign which offends many Italians, some of whom have accused him of racism and xenophobia.

The image of the League was not helped when a man associated with the party was arrested after six immigrants were shot in the town of Macerata.

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Many wonder how rhetoric could translate into action were Mr Salvini to get into government, were he even to become Prime Minister (he says if his party wins more votes than Mr Berlusconi’s and their coalition forms a government, he should get the top job).

In a district of Rome with a strong history of ethnic integration we met Italian voters Cristina Grandi and Domenico Artusa.

They have been appalled by what they regard as a toxic election campaign where they believe far-right parties including the League have tried to sow fear and resentment.

Silvio Berlusconi
Video: Italians go to the polls

Ms Grandi told us: “They have pushed the idea that we have an enemy and the enemy is the refugee or the people coming the last year. So, they create every day on the television this idea so the people have a lot of problems.”

Mr Artusa expressed frustration that immigration was such a big issue during the election to the exclusion of other pressing matters.

“There was no room to talk about anything else,” he said, insisting there are other issues facing Italians.

“The problem the people have here are different. Money, work, housing. These are the problems, not migrants.”

But many will draw parallels with the high rate of youth unemployment across Italy and the lack of housing with the high level of migration which might explain why Mr Salvini has managed to extend the League’s support from its power base in the North into other parts of Italy.

Electoral panels for candidates' posters in Rome
Image: Electoral panels for candidates’ posters in Rome

Mr Salvini made the strategic decision to change the name of the party from “Northern League” (the party was founded to pursue regional autonomy for north Italy) to simply “League” to broaden its appeal during the election.

But it’s not just voters worrying. In an immigration centre close to where Mr Salvini held one of his closing rallies we found worried men wondering what is going to happen to them.

People like Francis Dapaa from Ghana who has been in Italy for nine months and is hoping to stay. He, like the men around him, is not immune to the politics playing out around them.

He told us: “What makes me worry is maybe when it comes to that party coming to power they might deport some of us and I don’t know if I may be victim to that. I don’t know. But I am praying that whoever comes to power will have compassion.”

The coalition Mr Salvini is signed up to was predicted to do well in the most recent polls in Italy two weeks ago.

He is further to the right than its leader, but Mr Berlusconi has echoed the promise to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants.

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That centre-right coalition may be forced to do a deal with the centre-left if the election result numbers don’t add up and compromise is necessary.

But will Mr Salvini compromise on the very issue that drew supporters to him?


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