The politics of fear: how immigration is dominating the Italian election campaign

Growing popular concern about immigration could see the centre-right benefit in Sunday’s election

The politics of fear is once again affecting the Italian elections. After debates about fake news and the promise of very expensive, and for this reason unachievable, policies, shaped the first stage of the electoral campaign, the immigration issue has been at the heart of public discussion over these last few weeks (even though unemployment ranks as the highest issue of concern for voters).

It’s not the first time: other general elections in the recent past have been strongly characterised by the insecurity produced by immigration flows and the actions of the political entrepreneurs of fear: political actors who try to capitalise on xenophobic feelings to extend their support. But, in the case of the 2018 campaign, it’s more difficult to forecast the effects of these issues on the final result. Opinion polls have already showed some clues about this. But, a clearer frame will be sketched out by analysing the election outcome and performing post-electoral surveys.

The connection between immigration and security has been quite strong in the perceptions of Italian public opinion since the mid-nineties. A significant portion of Italians think that the presence of migrants poses a threat to public order and people’s safety. This perception is reinforced by official data which say that the proportion of immigrants – especially, illegal immigrants – amongst offenders is particularly high for specific crimes. According to data collected by Demos & Pi at the beginning of 2018, fear of ‘strangers’ is widespread in Italian society: 45% of interviewed people see immigrants as a threat to their security. If we analyse the complete time series, this index has reached comparable levels only two times before: between 1999 and 2001, and once again between 2007 and 2008. Both phases coincided with the run-up to a general election. Both campaigns were won by a centre-right coalition.

This issue has become, once again, a hot issue during the 2018 campaign as well. After reaching its highest peak at the end of 2007 – when one Italian out of two viewed people coming from other countries with suspicion – social apprehension about immigration had constantly declined until 2012. But it has reassumed an upward trend over the last five years, especially since 2016 (see Figure 1). The outbreak of the migrant and refugee crisis in 2015 saw the issue assume a central stage in public debate, especially regarding uncontrolled sea arrivals from Africa to Italian shores through the Mediterranean.

Figure 1: Percentage of Italians who view migrants as a threat for public order and Italians’ safety

Source: Demos&Pi Opinion Polls (1999-2018)

In the summer of 2017, there were clashes in the streets of Rome between the police and groups of refugees and asylum seekers protesting for having been removed from a building they had been squatting. Combined with other episodes of violence of which immigrants were the protagonists (or victims), and with fears connected with possible terrorist attacks, this event significantly increased the tensions around the theme of immigration, and further fuelled xenophobic and even racist sentiments.

In 2018 centre-right parties have once again promptly assumed their role as entrepreneurs of fear. This holds in particular for Matteo Salvini’s League, which openly reinforced its anti-immigration stance during the campaign, saying we need to stop an ‘invasion’ and put ‘Italians first’. Once a regionalist party, the League has been transformed by its new leader into a national(ist) euro-sceptic party, which takes the French Front National as a model. Among its voters, 69% see foreign people as a danger. The figure is equally high for their other centre-right allies: around 65-66% for both Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

In addition, many far-right movements and parties, outside the official centre-right, are very active in Italy and have increased their activism (and public visibility) in the recent phase. The tension reached its highest peak in early February, only one month before the general elections, when a young man went on a drive-by shooting targeting black people in the small and historically rich town of Macerata, seat of an old university. A few days before, near the same city, a Nigerian immigrant was accused of having murdered a young girl whose body was found dismembered in two suitcases. What impresses about the events is that they happened in central Italy – in the Marche region – traditionally known as a peaceful and socially integrated area. The Macerata gunman, who had been candidate for the League in local elections, was arrested by the police wearing an Italian flag on his shoulders, making a fascist salute and saying ‘I’ve done what had to be done’. 11% of Italians, interviewed by Demos & Pi, said the man had done ‘what many would like to do’.

In the centre-right coalition, Silvio Berlusconi is trying to present himself as a moderate barrier against the many different versions of Italian populism. But after the Macerata events, the old leader has called for the expulsion of 600,000 illegal immigrants, describing immigration as a ‘social time bomb’. This statement can be interpreted as a defensive move against the internal challenge represented by Salvini, who claim the League will be the leading centre-right party, and he will be the next prime minister. The new electoral system has favoured the re-unification of a strongly divided centre-right and given Berlusconi the opportunity to ‘enter’ the field again after years in the background. Those parties have been able to build a coalition, which led the last polls published before the electoral blackout, at around 35-37%. It might not be enough to avoid a hung parliament scenario, but, if they are going to win, it will be crucial to check the actual balance inside the coalition to understand where the new majority would stand on an ideal moderate-radical political spectrum with regards to immigration as well as other policy issues.

It’s not easy to assess how this social climate will impact on the results on 4th March and to understand if the security syndrome is going to play the same role as in 2008. Since then the configuration of the main political blocs has somewhat changed. In particular, the governing centre-left seems to have changed – or, at least, redefined – its traditional pro-immigration outlook, which used to promote solidarity and integration and was always ready to deny the immigration-criminality equation. Its Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, has gained popularity in recent months through his measures to reduce arrivals of African migrants through the Mediterranean. While the Democratic party leader, Matteo Renzi, has even tried to ‘steal’ some of Salvini’s slogans, saying that immigrants should be helped ‘at home’ (i.e. in their countries).

Moreover, Italian politics, since 2013, has assumed a tri-polar format. And the Italian ‘third pole’, represented by the Five Star Movement, has always expressed a very ambiguous attitude on the immigration issue. Some of its leaders have not hesitated to express hard words on the theme of migration, using arguments and tones very similar to those used by the right. Even though these positions has often been ‘balanced’ with opposite views expressed by other Five Star representatives who stressed the exploitation of Africa territory and society by multinational companies. In accordance with this ambiguous stance, its supporters appear to be almost equally divided as regards its attitudes on the migration issue. During the 2018 campaign, Roberta Lombardi, the Movement’s candidate for the Regional elections in Lazio, declared her territory should ‘welcome more tourism, which helps local economy, and less immigrants, who weigh on the local economy’. ‘It’s not a question of left and right, but a question of common sense’, she added.

The Italian 2018 general election will help (among other things) to check whether, in a (supposedly) post-ideological era, the immigration issue still has definite political colour.

This article is the sixth in a new SPERI Comment series with the PSA Italian Politics Specialist Group on the 2018 Italian election. Read all of the articles in the series so far here.