Macerata fuels anti-immigration flames

ROME – Over the course of two hours on Saturday, Luca Traini injured six people while firing from his vehicle at migrants and Democratic Party (PD) offices in the city of Macerata.

 The event, supposedly in retaliation for the arrest of a Nigerian national from the city on murder charges, has driven the already divisive topic of immigration to the top of the political agenda.  

 Traini’s actions have been seized upon by those on the right, who see Italian fear of immigration as the centrepiece of their electoral success.

 Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Northern League, quickly opined that Traini’s rampage was the inevitable outcome of “immigration out of control.” Silvio Berlusconi, the octogenarian leader of Forza Italia, and coalition partners with the Northern League, likewise re-orientated his campaign around the “social time bomb” of illegal immigrants.

 Even the PD, who quickly condemned the attack and those “fanning the fires of fear,” underlined that immigration, in the words of party secretary, Matteo Renzi, “can’t go on like this.” In fact, Renzi took to Italian television on Tuesday night to reiterate that Berlusconi has signed Italy up to the European Union’s Dublin Treaty, “after which the issue of immigration exploded.”  

 Such comments have become necessary not only in the national climate but also because Macerata itself is a key electoral battleground. “The capital of the Marche,” Il Giornale explained, “is the watershed between a red zone (i.e. those voting for the centre-left) and the south of the region that is closer to the centre-right.”

 However, the latest twist in Italy’s elections actually comes amidst a backdrop of falling immigration levels in the country.

 Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, has overseen a policy of collaboration with the Libyan government which has drastically cut the number of arrivals. From Jan 1 to Feb 7 2018 only 3,539 migrants arrived from Libya, compared with 9,007 for the same period one year previously.

 The PD have attempted on more than one occasion to stress this success. Renzi reiterated on Tuesday that his party had “blocked departures” and that the country stood as a “line of civilisation,” where people were saved from the Mediterranean because “it was the right thing to do.”  

 Whether the Italian electorate will be convinced by such pleas is another matter. Forza Italia has continued to gain ground in the past month, with papers such as Il Giornale predicting that polls in coming days will show more support for the right following events in Macerata.

 The disproportionate role of immigration on national elections is not, however, a distinctly Italian tale. Researchers from the Foundation for Initiatives and Studies on Multi-ethnicity (ISMU) announced on Wednesday that the issue was becoming the centrepiece of elections across Europe, following a study of elections in the Netherlands, UK, Germany and France.

 ISMU calculated the number of votes for different parties that were based on the issue of immigration. The UK topped the “closed” agenda poll with 44.1 percent of votes for parties being based on a negative attitude towards immigration, closely followed by France (41.3 percent) and the Netherlands (34.4 percent).

 The foundation argued that such findings demonstrate that “open” or “closed” attitudes towards immigration are becoming a more important indicator of voting intention than traditional left-right political allegiance.

 “The theme of immigration,” ISMU proposed, “is becoming increasingly central to the national political agenda.”

 However, they also noted that while many parties had been forced to take a tougher stance on immigration, those advocating the closure of borders had actually failed to win power in most elections.

 Italy may yet buck that trend, with a clearer path to power for the Italian right-wing coalition than the AfD in Germany, or UKIP in the UK, for example. Whatever the outcome, however, to so-called "Macerata effect" may still prove vital in deciding the result.