Before election, Italy slides to the right | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.02.2013
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Before election, Italy slides to the right

As Italian elections draw near, the economic crisis is providing a breeding ground for far-right and extremist politics. DW examines how feelings of anger, frustration and racism are spilling over into politics.

Italy, like much of the rest of Europe, is exhibiting many of the classic conditions that have, in the past, fomented a rise in far-right politics: poverty, rising unemployment, increasing levels of immigration, and a breakdown in traditional politics.

With an election on its way at the end of February, even the so called "technocrat" government of Mario Monti has failed to keep the peace in Italy's parliament. He was forced to call early elections by Italy's longest-serving prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who withdrew his support for Monti just before Christmas.

Political instability fuels fears

Italy's GDP carried on dipping in 2012 and the prognosis for 2013 does not look sunny, according to the Italian national statistics office, ISTAT. With political uncertainty once more a feature of daily life, stock markets have been taking sharp hits every time austerity measures that were implemented under Monti's regime appear threatened.

The numbers of resident foreigners in Italy is rising, too. In 2011 the figure rose by 7.9 percent, but is still only 7.5 percent of the population as a whole. Births among foreign-born residents are also higher than the rest of the Italian population. Furthermore, the distribution of foreigners living in Italy is very unequal, with 86.5 percent of them living in the north of the country. This is of course where manufacturing and the economy are stronger, but also where right-wing populist parties like the Northern League have gained the most ground.

The New Right in Europe

Lawmakers of the Lega Nord party hold a banner to protest a law proposal at the Senate hall in Rome, Italy, 21 December 2012. EPA/GIUSEPPE LAMI pixel

Northern League protesters in the Italian senate

Italy's far right is not the strongest or most active in Europe, but a summer 2012 investigation by the left-leaning daily newspaper, La Repubblica, into the "New Extreme Right" in Europe, found that membership of far-right organizations was growing. Paolo Berizzi, an author and Repubblica journalist, found that votes for far-right parties "account only for two percent, barely 500,000 votes," but the ideas that these parties promote are gaining credence even among former left-wing voters.

Demos, a UK think-tank with Marxist roots that focuses on power and policy across Europe, wrote a report signaling the increasing alliance between populist far-right movements across the continent. They found that these parties are focusing on newly perceived threats - for example when workers like those in Italy's northern manufacturing belt are laid off - to gain ground, sometimes at the expense of the traditional left.

"Gone are the race-based views and anti-Semitism that previously characterized the far right," the report said. "In their place is an emphasis on culture and values in the face of increasing immigration and the perceived cultural threat from the growth of Islam in Europe."

In a way, Italy's Northern League does just that. Although it doesn't position itself as far right, saying instead it is populist and separatist, it stands up firmly against the "fundamentalist Islamic threat" that is threatening "old Europe's hegemony."

Italy's extremes

Silvio Berlusconi, center, flanked by Roberto Maroni, left, and Umberto Bossi attends a voting session at the Lower Chamber, in Rome, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (Foto:Andrew Medichini/AP/dapd)

Berlusconi, center, flanked by Maroni, left, and Bossi

Like many things in Italy, Italian politics is a confusing and shape-shifting entity, as is the Italian right in particular. It is perhaps linked to the fact that the country has, unlike Germany, never entirely acknowledged the part it played in its fascist past.

"In our country, men who until a short while ago fervently admired the fascist past, can take part in government and even hold high office," Ettore Cinella a lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Pisa, said. "We still commemorate the soldiers who fought alongside the Germans for that fascist republic. This kind of thing can't help but raise worries for the moral character of our nation."

He added that the presence of many ex-members of the Italian communist party, PCI, including the incumbent president, Giorgio Napolitano, point to a general Italian problem in addressing the past. While these people now are respected as moderate statesman, some have not made peace with the harsh realities of the Soviet regime and the doctrines for which they fought during their youth, he said.

Cinella said that until Italy makes peace with its past it can't be considered a "civilized and moral country" and its politics will not move forward.

Italy's right wing

Right wing lawmaker Alessandra Mussolini (Foto:Andrew Medichini/AP/dapd)

Alessandra Mussolini is a vocal member of parliament

Today's right wing is a perfect illustration of his point. Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, is a vocal member of parliament and frequent participant in mainstream political chat shows. While she holds some populist views, she is also a supporter of women's rights, and is widely regarded as a fairly moderate member of the right, despite her familial associations.

But it's the Northern League that makes Italy's right so unique. It is not a fringe party with little political power, but rather a party that has already enjoyed the national stage for several years. In the last two Berlusconi governments, the Northern League sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PDL).

And now, it looks set to do so for a third time: Roberto Maroni, the new leader, announced in January that he will be running together with Berlusconi. The National League will be the coalition's sole candidate in Lombardy, where they are expected to win a landslide victory. Berlusconi jokingly announced their pact on national radio saying "Habemus Papam," the traditional Latin proclamation when a new pope is chosen.

He went on to say that "if they were to win the February elections, they would then announce who would be the country's future Prime Minister." But if the League delivers Lombardy to the PDL in the regional elections, which it is likely to do, it would have a lot of bargaining power. The party has won most of its support from former left-leaning voters in Lombardy and Veneto in recent years.

Battlelines drawn

James Walston, a professor at the American University in Rome and author of a blog about the Italian political landscape, said that even with the power of the Northern League, Berlusconi is unlikely to win the elections this time. But he believes that its presence could nevertheless "destabilize parliament sufficiently to make governing for whoever does win impossible."

But since Monti confirmed that he would be leading the centrists, Walston said, Berlusconi has been working overtime to outdo him in campaign terms, "throwing down a barrage worthy of the Battle of the Somme … shouting populist messages from the right like 'Monti is Merkel's lapdog and I will lower taxes, especially the property tax. The spread or interest rate difference between Germany and Italy is a con-trick. Trust me.'"

This is, he said, typical Berlusconi rhetoric, but it also chimes well with the Northern League's championing of 'great powers' that need to be combated and overtaken if Italy is to be free.

Rise of racism

AC Milan Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, right, is flanked by his teammate Mathieu Flamini as he gestures towards the crowd in Busto Arsizio, near Milan, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. A friendly match between AC Milan and lower division club Pro Patria was abandoned Thursday after racist chants directed at Milan's black players, the latest incident of racial abuse that continues to blight the sport. After repeated chants directed his way, Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng picked up the ball and kicked it at a section of the crowd in the 26th minute of the first half. Boateng then took off his shirt and walked off the pitch with his Milan teammates. Urby Emanuelson, Sulley Muntari and M'Baye Niang were also targeted by the chants. (Foto:Emilio Andreoli/AP/dapd)

Boateng faced racist abuse during a match against Pro Patria

The kaleidoscope nature of the right and extreme right in Italy, as well as the growing acceptance of more extreme views today, provide a backdrop against which incidents like the racist chants towards Kevin-Prince Boateng and the other black players at the friendly football match in January between Berlusconi's AC Milan team and second-division 'Pro Patria' are not particularly surprising.

In fact, Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper alleges that one of the chanters is also a councilor for the Northern League in nearby Corbetta, and is responsible, ironically, for sport and youth policy.

Of course, Berlusconi and the League moved quickly to denounce the incident. Berlusconi said he supported his team's action in walking off the pitch and "standing up to unacceptable racism." The football league, the FIGC, also condemns such behavior and Italy has worked hard to eliminate racism from its football grounds and society.

Football and politics

It is difficult to draw direct lines between a few football fans' racist chants, however abhorrent they may be, and evidence that acceptance of racist and extreme right wing ideas are on the rise across the board. But the lines in this, as in politics, are blurred.

Berlusconi's denunciation of racism on the pitch comes from a man who famously called President Obama "quite tanned" and seemed to take a delight in telling a German MEP that he would play a great Nazi in a film. His attitudes to race then could appear confused at best. Under his last administration, his partnership with the Northern League resulted in statements threatening illegal immigrants attempting to land on Italian shores, with the prospect of being fired at using live rounds of ammunition in an attempt to deter them from coming.

Like every politician, as Berlusconi fights hard to win another term of office, everything he says is carefully calibrated with an eye to the campaign. He is famous for his deployment of football terminology in politics and using his team, AC Milan, to help polish his political image. Take his recent purchase of Mario Balotelli, the black Italian international, from Manchester City. The player is famous not just for great football, but also for causing controversy on and off the field. He is perfect for winning column inches, and, if played right, perhaps power.

Racist chants are evidence of ignorance at best, and, at worst, dissatisfaction, anger and growing violence - at least in hearts and minds throughout the country. As ignorance, confusion and obfuscation prevail in parliamentary politics and society, the far right is quietly taking over the middle ground in the "bel paese," working to prove they have the key to pulling the country out of the crisis in which it finds itself.

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