Migrants Are Hot-Button Issue as Italians Prepare to Vote

Giovanni Legorano and Marcus Walker, Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2018

But on March 4, besides celebrating his 65th birthday, he will vote for the anti-immigration Lega (League) party in Italy’s national elections. The country’s center-left incumbents, he says, have lost touch with ordinary people and are devoting too many resources to support migrants.

“We who are from here are worth less to them than the new arrivals,” Mr. Paolucci said, standing beside his van where he sells porchetta roast pork at Umbertide’s weekly market.

Immigration has become a central battleground in Italy’s election, along with fear of crime, a battered economy, and disgust with political incumbents. Parties of the right are pledging to kick out hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants.

The governing center-left, which argues there are no simple solutions, is struggling to prevent an erosion of its vote—even in bastions such as Umbertide, a town once so solidly left-wing that local cynics called it “little Stalingrad.”

Italy is at the forefront of Europe’s migration crisis, now that the Balkans and other paths to Europe have become less passable for people from the poor and war-torn regions nearby. More than 750,000 migrants have reached Italy’s shores since 2011, most of them rescued from rickety boats while trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa.

A survey by research institute Demos & Pi in November found that 43% of Italians think immigrants represent a danger to public order and people’s safety, up from 33% in 2015. Italian authorities argue the angst is overblown: Crimes rates in Italy have dropped by 17% in the last two years, according to the Interior Ministry. But the fears are dominating the election.

Italy’s vote is the latest in a series of major European elections that have pitted nativist movements and other anti-establishment insurgents against governing centrists. The result, as in many other European countries, is likely to be a fragmentation of the political landscape, making stable governments hard to form. Left-of-center parties in particular are struggling to respond to a cocktail of economic and identity fears among working-class voters.

Opinion polls suggest the likeliest outcome is a hung parliament, with no party or alliance winning a majority. But outright victory for a right-of-center alliance is also possible. That alliance, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and including the Lega, has risen to 38% support in surveys, thanks partly to its tough line on immigration. The 5 Star Movement, an eclectic anti-incumbent group, has around 28% support in polls, while the ruling center-left Democratic Party trails with around 23%.

Some parties have dialed up their anti-immigrant rhetoric this month, after a far-right gunman shot and wounded six African migrants in a city in central Italy before giving the fascist salute.

Voters in Umbertide and elsewhere in Italy go to the polls on March 4. Immigration has become a major battleground topic in the campaign. Photo: Nadia Shira Cohen for The Wall Street Journal

Lega leader Matteo Salvini condemned the shooting by a former local candidate from his party, but suggested migration was the real problem. “Out-of-control immigration brings chaos, hatred, social disputes…drug dealing, rape, robberies and violence,” he said. Mr. Berlusconi said irregular migrants “represent a social bomb ready to explode.”

A few days after the Feb. 3 shooting, Mr. Salvini launched the Lega’s election campaign by visiting Umbertide, an industrial town of 17,000 people in the hilly Umbria region, where the construction of a large Islamic cultural center and mosque has sparked a fierce debate. Visiting the building site, Mr. Salvini promised to block its completion if his party wins power. He declared Islam “a law, not a religion” and “incompatible with our values, our rights and our freedom.”

“We are in a democracy so everybody can express his opinion, but I think some politicians have wrong ideas about Islam,” says Chafiq El Oqayly, head of Umbertide’s Islamic association.

Many locals worry the cultural center will attract Muslim migrants from all over central Italy. Anna Di Fiore, a 19-year-old graphic-design graduate from a local technical college, says she is uncomfortable with how it could change the town. Her parents always vote for the left, Ms. Di Fiore says, but Mr. Salvini’s visit persuaded her and her boyfriend to vote for Lega.

“We are for putting Italians first,” says Vittorio Galmacci, head of the Lega chapter in Umbertide. “Like the Catholic religion says, we should love our neighbor first, before those who are more distant.”

The town’s ruling Democratic Party, which sold the land to the local Islamic association, is striving to tamp down the controversy. Umbertide has had a Muslim minority for decades, including many North Africans who came to work at local factories and tobacco farms. “They came for jobs that Italians did not want to do,” said local Democratic leader Lucia Ranuncoli. The roughly 3,000 Muslims in the area have never posed a problem, she added. “The cultural center is being instrumentalized.”

The 5 Star Movement, which is increasingly turning against immigration too, says recently arrived migrants in Umbertide haven’t fit in. “Once, the Muslim community was completely integrated,” said local representative Michele Venti. “Now we know very little about them.”

The debate is dividing Umbertide, as it is Italy as a whole. “Feelings of hate, of turning away from other people, have been aroused, even in this small town,” Ms. Ranuncoli said. “It’s an election driven by emotions.”

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