Italians vote for intolerance?


EVEN though there were still votes to count, by Sunday night Italy’s general election was all over bar the shouting. And this being Italy, there now seems set to be a lot of shouting. That noise will almost certainly be louder than usual because the coalition government that must be built is likely to consist of right-wing politicians who have ridden on anti-migrant ticket.

The outgoing left-of-center government Matteo Renzi has been rejected decisively. The once-bright political star of the outgoing prime minister faded because of his perceived failure to tackle the country’s financial problems. In fact Renzi has overseen Italy’s slow but steady recovery over the last four years and unemployment, which topped 13 percent in 2014, fell to something over ten percent at the end of last year. But voters were in no mood to given Renzi much credit for this achievement. They were distracted by the loud drums of the xenophobic parties of the right, particularly of Matteo Salvini’s League which was aggressively Islamophobic. It promised to deport hundreds of thousands of the migrants who have come to Italy, largely from the shores of Libya, which now looks ever more like a failed state.

In the last four years over 670,000 people, the majority sub-Saharan Africans but also Syrians, Somalis, Eritreans, Pakistanis and now even Libyans, have arrived in Italy. The authorities have been overwhelmed in their efforts to cope. Migrant camps have overflowed. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have entered Italy’s black economy or managed to find their way further into Europe, even though France has reneged on its obligations under the Schengen Agreement and reinstated its border controls with Italy.

European Union rules say that illegal migrants must apply for asylum in the member state where they first arrive. However, as the migrant tide continued to grow, Brussels accepted that Italy’s European partners should do something to help. But in the event, they have given precious little practical assistance to Rome. Renzi’s government ended up paying the Libyan people-smuggling gangs of militiamen to keep migrants in Libya. This has worked, in that the flow of asylum-seekers has dropped sharply, but conditions in Libya’s migrant detention camps have been condemned as barbarous by international observers.

The failure by the rest of the EU to support Italy over the migrants has played to the Euroskeptic parties led by the Five Star Movement which strongly boosted its standing by winning some 32 percent of the popular vote on Sunday. Five Star may nowadays stop short of demanding Italy quit the EU but it still wants to push back hard against the centralization of powers in Brussels. The openly racist League with around 18 percent of voter support came ahead of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia with just under 14 percent.

Between them they could easily form a right-wing coalition government. But this is Italy. If Angela Merkel’s Germany has just taken four months to agree a coalition, how much longer are Italian politicians going to need with their tradition of bickering? The danger is that the one policy on which it seems they could unite is migration. If that emerges as the dominant feature of the eventual new coalition government in Rome, then Italy will give comfort to other racist European parties particularly in France, Germany, Holland and Austria which are moved by bigotry and hatred.