March 4 will mark the first parliamentary election in five years, but expectations aren't running high. Abstentionism is expected to reach record levels (although 75 percent of Italians voted in 2013, that was an all-time low for a general election ...
Supporters of Italy’s far-right Forza Nuova party wave flags during a demonstration in Rome on November 4, 2017. (Reuters / Stefano Rellandini)
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Rome—It was 11 am in Macerata, a quiet university town in Italy’s central Le Marche region. Luca Traini, 28, was driving around looking for dark-skinned people he figured were Africans. Glock in hand, he began firing on selected pedestrians from his moving car. After he had shot eight people of color, wounding two gravely, he threw an Italian flag over his shoulders and posed in front of the town’s extravagant 1930s war monument, his arm raised in the Fascist salute, until the police came to arrest him.
The Macerata gunman—Nazi tattoo on his forehead, a copy of Mein Kampf at home; employed as a disco bouncer, foot soldier for both the neofascists of Casa Pound and the xenophobes of the League—shocked a country where gun possession is modest and drive-by killings rare. Yet the sentiment that moved him, his anti-African, anti-migrant rage, is widely shared across Italy. A Nigerian man had recently been arrested here for the drug-overdose death of an 18-year-old Macerata woman and the dismembering of her dead body. A lot of Italians had very little sympathy for Traini’s random Nigerian, Ghanaian, Gambian, and Malian victims. “Shoot the beasts on sight” was a typical call to arms on Facebook groups like Fascists United for Italy and Third Millennium Fascists.
Like just about everywhere else in the West these days, the far right in Italy is as noisy and threatening as it has ever been since the end of World War II. It’s hard to believe that for a long time after 1945, Italy was not merely constitutionally but culturally anti-fascist, despite the persistence of a party nostalgic for il Duce. Now, as general elections approach on March 4, the right’s poisonous opposition to migrants, their loud rallies and fascistic violence, dominate the campaign.
Recent years have seen malicious fires, beatings, and stabbings of foreigners and political opponents by Forza Nuova, Casa Pound, the League (formerly Northern League), and Nazi sympathizers.
According to a group called Infoantifa Ecn, which keeps track of far-right violence here, there have been 142 incidents like Macerata since 2014, including malicious fires, beatings, and stabbings of foreigners and political opponents by Forza Nuova, Casa Pound, the League (formerly Northern League), and Nazi sympathizers. There was the menacing band of 15 neo-Nazi skinheads that recently raided a meeting at Como Senza Frontiere, a volunteer migrant-rights association; there are the “Bangla Tours” in Rome to beat up individual Bangladeshi immigrants, organized by Forza Nuova, which also holds “outreach” sessions to recruit and train high-school students for the raids. In 2016 the Nigerian Emmanuel Chidi Namdi was beaten to death by a soccer “ultra,” as right-wing extremist football fans are called, in the city of Fermo, Le Marche. An asylum seeker, he and his fiancée had fled Nigeria to escape Boko Haram the year before. And the killing did not begin in 2014: Two Senegalese men, Samb Modou and Diop Mor, were murdered by a follower of the fascistic Casa Pound in Florence in 2011. (Casa Pound is a maverick far-right party that began as a squatters group in Rome and takes its name from American poet Ezra Pound’s beliefs about usury and capitalism and his support of the late-Fascist Italian Social Republic.)
Far from hiding in the shadows, the right seems to welcome publicity about these crimes. While a probable majority of Italians were appalled by the Macerata shootings, the far right knows that others see them as heroes, and that their actions will intimidate the intended targets. For example, the immediate reaction of Matteo Salvini, chief of the League, to the news from Macerata was close to jubilant. “An invasion of immigrants will bring social strife,” he said, meaning, “it’s their fault.” Apparently unbothered that the gunman had been a local candidate for the League in 2017, he also didn’t seem worried about fanning the flames of racist violence. To the contrary.
Take the far right Forza Nuova party, led by Roberto Fiore, a shady neofascist with a past in the deadly right-wing terrorism of the 1970s. It’s expected to get less than 1 percent of the vote, but FN’s raison d’être is squadristic, not electoral: noisy rallies and violent clashes with adversaries. In Bologna, Naples, and Venice, most everywhere FN has held a meeting in the past few weeks, there have been street fights with antifascist protesters.
Meanwhile in Turin, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the neofascist Fratelli d’Italia, staged a demo in front of the city’s Egyptian museum, which had recently begun offering Arabic-speaking couples discount tickets to its fine collection. Why should foreigners get a cut and Italians not? shrieked Meloni. Only when the museum’s dynamic young director, Christian Greco, came downstairs to rebut her arguments in person did the protest fizzle out.
As the vote draws near, the temptation to exploit fear of migrants for electoral gain is likely to be irresistible.
Silvio Berlusconi didn’t miss a beat either. “There are 600,000 [undocumented] immigrants circulating in Italy, a social bomb ready to ignite because these people live by expedients and crime,” he told a TV interviewer in response to a question about Luca Traini’s shooting spree. Berlusconi promised to round up those 600,000 and expel them. “Even citizens can turn them in,” he said. A day later he backed away from those pledges, having decided it was better to distinguish himself from the more savage right. But as the vote draws near, the temptation to exploit fear of migrants for electoral gain is likely to be irresistible.
The Five Star Movement (M5S) has been ambiguous about the new arrivals, when not outright anti-migrant. Luigi Di Maio, the party’s candidate for prime minister, who was ordained by party boss Beppe Grillo and confirmed last fall in lackluster online voting, blamed Berlusconi for the presence of foreigners because it was his government that signed the Dublin II Regulation of 2003, which established that all those seeking asylum in an EU country do so in their country of entrance—a provision that penalizes those like Greece and Italy, with their porous sea borders, swelling the number of undocumented. Asked about assistance to migrants recently, Di Maio kept his distance. “First come policies to support Italian families,” he said. Italy first.
In the M5S party program, newly written for the election, the chapter on migration sounds pragmatic and fairly neutral. But the party showed its true colors in December, when the center-left government made a last-ditch effort to pass the so called “ius soli” bill granting citizenship at birth to children—they number some 800,000—born in Italy to non-Italian parents. The entire bank of M5S senators deserted the hall, the Senate failed to reach a quorum, and the long-awaited measure was dead.
March 4 will mark the first parliamentary election in five years, but expectations aren’t running high. Abstentionism is expected to reach record levels (although 75 percent of Italians voted in 2013, that was an all-time low for a general election). Most polls predict the election will result in a three-way stalemate, but if it doesn’t end that way, Berlusconi—heading a right-wing coalition similar to those he led to victory in the past, composed of his bespoke party Forza Italia, the xenophobic League, and the deans of Italian neofascism, Fratelli d’Italia—could scrape by with a win.
Silvio Berlusconi was supposed to be finished in politics—but when the center cannot hold, it seems that louche, superannuated alley cats move in.
But wait, wasn’t Berlusconi finished? He was, but the 81-year-old media tycoon and convicted felon rose from the political dead last fall despite a pending new trial and his longstanding reputation for Bunga Bunga. He’s back in the game, a little older and more tired. After he was ousted from the premiership in 2011, when he crossed swords with the European Union over Italy’s debt, Berlusconi was found guilty of tax fraud, sentenced to community service, and barred from public office. Until that last measure expires in 2019, he can’t serve as prime minister, but he’s determined to be a powerbroker. And so, following a slimming cure at an expensive spa and conspicuous plastic surgery, he’s now posing as an elder statesman. When the center cannot hold, it seems that louche, superannuated alley cats move in. Exhibits B and C, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Nothing seems to have changed since the alley cat was last in power—except that there are now not one but two others like him.
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party is expected to poll about 16-17 percent. The League is expected to get 12-14 percent, and Fratelli d’Italia, 5-6 percent. If the small post–Christian Democratic party Noi con l’Italia gets somewhere around 3 percent, bringing the coalition’s total over 40 percent, the complicated new electoral law, in which some seats are winner-take-all and some assigned by proportional representation, might just bring a victory to Berlusconi’s band of brothers. It’s a prospect that bodes ill for Italy’s people of color, women, immigrants, and LGBT citizens. Let us not forget that Berlusconi was the man who made neofascism legitimate in Italy by giving the League and Fratelli d’Italia’s ancestor, the Italian Social Movement, a role in national government for the first time.
And the revenant Berlusconi borrows shamelessly from his radical-right partners. Among Forza Italia’s present bag of election tricks is a guaranteed minimum income of 1,000 euros (a cynical bid to outdo the M5S’s promised 780 euros), a flat tax, and a block on new migrants, all unworkable promises. (He also pulled out his evergreen vote bait: a condono edilizio, a blanket amnesty for any building project that isn’t up to code; the large construction sector, especially in the South, traditionally loathes and shuns regulations.) Elsewhere Berlusconi’s policies borrow directly from the League: the same bargain-basement regressive flat tax, the same impossible-to-achieve crackdown on undocumented migrants crossing the Strait of Sicily from Africa. Where the League’s Matteo Salvini differs is in his much harder opposition to the euro; he and many other Italians hold the currency responsible for Italy’s economic woes. Salvini shares that position with the other members of the right-wing Europe for Nations and Freedom group in Brussels, although the mainstay of the group, the National Front of France, softened its anti-EU stance after the 2017 presidential election, in which the winning Emmanuel Macron espoused a strong pro-EU line.
And the left? Alas, Italy’s left remains hopelessly divided.
In the view of many, Matteo Renzi’s response to the Macerata shooting was exasperatingly cautious. The attack was “racist,” tweeted the Partito Democratico (PD) secretary and former prime minister, but he then went on to urge a greater police presence on the streets. The implication: It was more important to reassure citizens worried about migrants committing crimes than to defend the rights of the victims. In comments reported in the Italian press, Renzi worried aloud that the shooting would only bring votes to the League and the fascist and neo-Nazi parties.
When both left- and right-wing groups announced they would hold demonstrations after the shooting, the mayor of Macerata (PD) banned all such manifestations, and the big left-wing movement organizers—the CGIL labor federation as well as Italy’s official anti-fascist organization ANPI, the national association of partisans—said they would comply. So did Renzi on behalf of the national PD, announcing another rally on migration later in the month.
New arrivals on the left include Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal), which split last year from the PD, and Potere al Popolo (Power to the People), a coalition of anti-capitalist activists and parties modeled on Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum.
That didn’t stop between 20,000 and 30,000 people from all across Italy from traveling to Macerata to take part in a February 10 demonstration “against racism and every kind of fascism.” It was a huge number for a nearly spontaneous gathering. The most prominent political parties were Liberi e Uguali (LeU, Free and Equal), a formation made up of veteran politicians who last year split from the PD, contesting what they see as Renzi’s autocratic leadership and his weak resistance to neoliberal pressures, and the fledgling Potere al Popolo (PP, Power to the People), a coalition of anti-capitalist activists and tiny far-left parties, modeled on Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum. Among the Africans who courageously turned out to march were even some from Macerata itself. A Ghanaian man photographed on Facebook carried a large sign that read simply “NO—Rosa Parks.”
Potere al Popolo, led by Viola Carofalo, 37, and created only in December 2017, has an uphill road to Parliament; it needs to gain 3 percent of the vote to pass the threshold for representation in Rome. Despite its probable slender share, the PP’s presence worries the other newly created left formation, Liberi e Uguali. LeU stands to get about 6 percent of the vote, but they fear the energetic young activists of PP will reduce their numbers.
The PD under Renzi is slated to pick up 26-28 percent, but that’s with the help of three small allied lists, among them Più Europa (More Europe), led by the highly respected Emma Bonino. Along with Renzi’s left adversaries in Liberi e Uguali (not aligned with the PD), the Più Europa party was gaining preferences in the month before the vote, while the PD’s approval was shrinking. Not only is the PD pro-Europe, the candidacy of Emma Bonino represents a clear rejection of right-wing Euro-skepticism.
And the climate in Europe may be about to change in Italy’s favor. If the recent SPD-CDU agreement in Germany on a renewed “grand coalition” holds, and the new finance minister is indeed from the center-left SPD, European Union economic policies may soon be less draconian. The austerity that has been so punishing, especially for southern Europe, may evolve to encompass more incentives for businesses, assisting in economic recovery. A modest economic recovery is already under way in Italy, and a further EU boost could calm some of the income-related anxiety Italians feel.
The euro, and the EU Fiscal Compact that is supposed to secure it, is in fact the second most contentious issue in the elections, after migration. The Five Star Movement is openly Euro-skeptic. The M5S has long been associated with its founder, the comic Beppe Grillo, but according to some rumors, he has now cut his baby loose. Polls are giving the M5S some 27-29 percent of the vote, not enough to form a government. Because the party has always refused to share power, a coalition government with either right or left is unlikely. However, M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, in London to meet financial powers in the City not long ago, was quoted in the British press as having said he might consider a post-election coalition. He promptly disavowed the comment, blaming an improbable translation error.
The continuing appeal of the angry “caste-busting,” anti-establishment M5S testifies to the failure of the governing center-left to inspire voters, but also to the fact that the “Grillini” are still relatively untried, the party having been founded only in 2009. Where the M5S has assumed power, in the city governments of Rome and Turin, results have been unimpressive. Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, has careened from problem to problem, far from her promises of honesty and efficiency. The M5S recently staged an online national primary to select its parliamentary candidates. Just under 40,000 voted (not many for a party expected to earn nearly 10 million votes), but the process was laborious and dogged with suspicious snafus. “It took the M5S two weeks to count 40,000 votes,” one Facebook wit commented. “When they’re in charge of the Interior Ministry, counting the national vote of 40 million will thus take 2,000 weeks.”
Italy’s progressive political class is old, tired, and not very creative, so the arrival of Potere al Popolo—energized by its non-aligned position and its youthful followers—can only be a good thing.
Except in the unlikely event that one of the three main contenders (Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, the M5S, or the PD center-left coalition) wins a majority in March, there will probably be new elections soon, unless some kind of large bipartisan coalition can be made to work.
The small formation Potere al Popolo—energized by its non-aligned position and its youthful followers, many coming out of the radical left political clubs called centri sociali—looks set to grow. Italy’s progressive political class is old, tired, and not very creative, so this can only be a good thing. Italian young people, suffering from high unemployment and poor job prospects, badly need a movement like the one behind Britain’s Corbyn. What is less cheering is the prospect that the fascistic far right, also a youth movement, will continue to grow. Street clashes between the far right and the centri sociali are already common.
The keynote of Italian life today is rancor, said Giuseppe De Rita, a Catholic and a centrist, the retired founder of the government agency Censis. “This is an old society, in which desire has collapsed,” he said. Instead of resentment and anger, “we need a rebirth of passion, a return of the crazy desire to grow, to be roused emotionally.”
The poet Andrea Inglese, coming from an entirely different, left-wing formation, oddly hit some of the same notes in a moving reflection on “the uncertainty connected to work and the dismal passions,” published on the Nazione Indiana blog. Today’s “hypercompetitive” job conditions “as presently organized in capitalism” produce “emotional waste”—frustration, anger, fear, and shame, Inglese writes. That waste is exploited by “racist and fascist waste-disposal enterprises” that, like criminal organizations, dump the poisons and pollute the territory. The right intends to convert those toxins, which incidentally have nothing to do with migration, into electoral gold.
The left, meanwhile, has not yet understood how to direct those “dismal passions” into a winning struggle, “made not just of rage but of joy, not just of fear but of hope, not just of shame but of pride.”
This is now the task almost everywhere across Europe, where neoliberalism’s deadening power and the angry far right threaten us with catastrophe.