Italian Elections and the (Un)Importance of Migration


This was a special week-end for my country and so I want to dedicate this post to the perspective of immigrants’ rights confronted to the results of the Italian election.

In order to better explain how the situation is, I try to put forward some unpretending hints to the dimension of the phenomenon of immigration and to the agenda of the different parties regarding it.

A country of emigration discovers immigrations

Italy is traditionally considered as a country of emigrants. As a consequence of the wars and riots that characterized the creation of the unite nation-state in the second half of the 19th century, a flow originated from different regions, especially the southern. Since 1861, the year when the new Kingdom of Italy was created under the Savoy dynasty, till 1985, it has been estimated that about 30 millions Italians have left the motherland. In Europe, as long as in North and South America, the presence of people of Italian descent is still imposing, albeit they are frequently disguised thanks to mixed marriages and integration.

Beginning with the Balkan crises in the middle ’90s, though, and as a consequence of the end of the colonial empires in Africa and the violent conflicts that hammered the poorest of the continents, the situation was suddenly overthrown and Italy became a country of immigration.

With the Arabian Spring and the end of Gadhafi’s regime thousands of refugees reversed on tiny islands of the south and the problem underwent and escalation from endemic to explosive.

At the same time, in the end of the ’90s some special measures were issued by the Government. “Centers of temporary permanence” were established and for the first time it was possible to detain an individual not because of some criminal offense but just out of his being undocumented. The traditional “ius sanguinis” model, that, in a different manner than in the US, grants citizenship at birth only to people born from at least one Italian parent, remained unquestioned.

The coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, who remained the chief of the Government from 2001 to 2011 with a two years interruption in 2006-8 enforced controls on immigrants and transformed the centers of “temporary permanence” in structures explicitly devoted to deportation, namely the “centers of identification and expulsion”. The Northern League, one regionalist party that had great influence on these issues, obtained the writing of the “Bossi-Fini” law. Legal permissions of staying were limited and matched with stable jobs, while there was a crackdown on “illegals” seen as more eager to crime and as sources of drug and prostitution smuggling. They were dubbed  with the Italian word “clandestini”, that was traditionally used to indicate who enter a ship or an airplane without been noticed and that changed meaning in these years.

The Northern League, together with some far-right parties, was one of the few interpreters of the feelings of fears and nationalism that were spreading throughout the population as a consequence of the sudden, dramatic growth of the immigration rate. At the same time, the native population fertility rate was decreasing at a pace similar and sometimes even faster than others western countries. This also contributed to increase the perception of an invasion especially directed against the richest region of the North, the “white and christian Padania” as Mario Borghezio, member of the European Parliament and most extremist deputy of the Northern League, called it during a speech.

Appealing to the classic arguments of anti-immigration parties, not least the competition on the job-market exacerbated by the economic crisis in the Euro Zone, Northern League reached a 10% of national electoral consents despite being locally-rooted and oriented toward secession or clear-cut federalism. It deployed its glowing methods of propaganda, such as the poster I reported above, as a way to pursue this end.

The message can be translated “They [Native American] suffered immigration, and now live in reservations. Think about it!

Some complex reasons, though, made the Berlusconi’s coalition dissolve even if it had been given by voters one of the vastest majority of deputies in the history of the republic. The President of the Republic (not to be confused with the Prime Minister) decided to rely on the towering economist Mario Monti to deal with the economic crisis and to lead the country through an about one-year transition that ended (hopefully) with this week-end elections.

So what is it likely to be the future of the more than five millions of Italian immigrants (8% of the population) and the estimated 500000 “illegal”

It is not easy to answer this question as long as parties themselves fail to face the problem of immigrants rights and focus more on themes that grasp the attention of Italian electors, for example taxation, cost of government, retirement policies and so on.

The Democratic Party, a left-wing political force that was assigned by polls a clear majority of votes until they were shut down according to a law that imposes media political silence during the days of elections, is one of the few that explicitly pays attention to the theme of immigration. Their program is basically to shorten the period needed to immigrants’ children to obtain Italian citizenship. It has to be said that Italian model of welfare states, according to European Standards, gives to immigrants children exactly the same rights (education, healthcare…) of Italian, except the rights (mainly political) connected to full citizenship.

The electoral manifesto also shows the intention, traditionally vindicated by all progressive parties, to repeal the whole “Bossi-Fini” bill or at least its substantial articles and so to change the overall immigration policies. This ideas radically questions the recent year approach to immigration, but is has also to be recognized that were politicians from the Democratic Party area who created the Turco-Napolitano law in 1998, namely the law that introduced “centers of temporary residence”. In their latest program there’s also a chapter explicitly speaking of “preventing irregular immigration and fighting illegal immigration”.

The People of Freedom, Berlusconi’s party, is expected to be the second party with some 5-7% of votes less than the Democratic. It is a very peculiar political movement and it doesn’t have a clear program visible on the website. The objectives it explicitly pursues are probably the ones mentioned by its leader in public speeches: tax-reduction and other actions to help economy and industry to recover. As far as I know, immigration has not been a hot-topic of its debate preceding elections and I think the most plausible hypothesis would be that of a continuity with the past. As an ally of Northern League, Berlusconi is not expected neither to challenge the immigration system that he himself contributed to create, nor to endorse its allies most extremist requests, both because of some tensions occurred between the two parties and the loss of consensus that, according to polls, now see the Northern League only at a 5% of national scrutiny.

The ex-premier Mario Monti is now become the leader of the centrist coalition With Mario Monti for Italy: a Civic Choice. During his period as a chief of the government, Monti couldn’t change the rules of the system because of the nature of his mandate that, I remind you, was not given him by elections but by an emergency decision of the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano as a response to the economic and political crisis. He was supposed to be working on economy and urgent issues and he shirked from controversial fields. At the same time, though, he created a cabinet for “Integration and International Cooperation” and delegated it to Andrea Riccardi, the coordinator of the Community of Saint Egidio. This is a Catholic movement committed to the development of international peace (they contributed, for example, to the peace treaty that ended the war in Mozambico and that was signed in Rome) and the struggle against fascist and racist ideologies. In fact, the article the Monti devoted to immigration on the website created for these elections has the title “Agenda Immigration – A Source for the Growth of Italy”. Monti explicitly states that the immigration (and also the refugees’) system has proved to be broken during the last crises and the landing of masses fleeing from Northern Africa’s unrest. He invites to shorten the period necessary to obtain Italian citizenship for children underage to only 5 years of permanent residence. His program of a general overhaul is similar to that of the Democratic Party, but with no mention of illegal immigration restrictions. This party is expected to gain around 15% of votes.

A similar share could be reached by the Five Stars Movement, a party founded by the comedian and television entertainer Beppe Grillo. This political force is of a totally new kind and appeals to “direct democracy” through media employment, especially relying on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Its official website, indeed, is the personal blog of its leader.

I skimmed the program quickly and I couldn’t find any reference to the theme of immigration, that obviously surprised me but was also one of the most uneasy objection that the comedian had to face from its adversaries in last months.

The party is mainly committed to issues like the defense of the environment, animalism, green energy and, as I said, the improvement of citizens’ participation to the government.

I finally say something about the actual politics of the Northern League, of which I have already spoke, but the list of Italian parties could be longer. Anyway, these five, perhaps together with another one or two, are by far the most relevant.

At present Northern League has switched its attention from the nationalist to the local and nativist claim. “The North First” is the motto largely employed for these elections. Of course the official website spends some words related to immigration and I find itself significant that they are embodied in the section “Justice – Security – Immigration”. The term is surrounded by others that can be translated as “Jails”, “Underworld”, “Penal System” etc.

It seems clear that, while paying more attention to other ideas perceived as more useful in respect of the elections, the Northern League has maintained its “iron fist” toward (or against) immigration. Their official document on the issue explicitly recalls the “ius sanguinis” model in the title and begins with the words “Citizenship shouldn’t be thought as a means to ensure integration but, on the contrary…”.

I underline, once again, that Northern League won’t easily be influential of the immigration policies of the future since it is expected to stay at opposition together with Berlusconi and as other new-born parties such as Monti’s or Grillo endorse a far different if not opposite approach to the theme.

In the end, though, I realistically point out that the issue has not been given the importance it deserves due to the demographic and economic relevance of immigration and to the strategic position of Italy as a “gate to Europe” beside Greece and Spain. The past, with the troubles that followed the civil wars in Central Africa, and more recently the Arabian Spring and the Mali crisis, has clearly shown the dimension on which immigration is impacting our social and political institutions. The future, as a consequence of the immigrants’ fertility rates, 0.3 higher than the 1.8 (or lower) of Italians’, that is almost a world (negative) record, won’t but enforce the centrality of this theme.

At present, though, politicians turn their faces away. As long as they can afford it.

Postscript: Before I was able to publish this post, the first projections of the results appeared on the website of the most important Italian newspapers. It seems that Italian polls has proved unreliable. It is almost a tradition. I underline just three elements of the most updated scenario: Berlusconi received far more votes than expected and his coalition is about in balance with the one of the parties of the left, while Monti did far less than forecast and Grillo far better, being the first party (but since it is not allied with anybody, it won’t be a majority party). The political situation, and the Senate in particular, right now looks ungovernable and, between other problems, a significant reform of the immigration system appears really unlikely to happen easily, even if the Northern League, with only a 4%, fell at one of the lowest level of its electoral history.


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