In just over two years, Italy’s Northern League party has bounced back from an all-time low of just 4% in the 2013 elections to 16-17% support in recent polls, thanks in large part to the mounting Italian migrant crisis.
The Matteo Renzi government, on the other hand, has taken hit after hit, and Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) now sits at 30.8 percent in polls, without many natural allies. Leaders from around the political spectrum slammed Renzi for covering up nude statues for the visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the Prime Minister has likewise suffered scathing criticism for his handling of the immigration crisis.
Last week, Italian Senator Marco Marin of the center-right Forza Italia Party blasted Renzi for converting Italy into a “great parking lot of despair” through his inability to effectively address Italy’s immigration problem.
“Sweden has announced the deportation of 80 thousand migrants, the Netherlands intends to repatriate via train the asylum-seekers arriving into Greece from Turkey and Denmark confiscates valuables as ‘repayment’ for migrant access to welfare,” he said. “The Renzi government, however, waits, standing still, not knowing what to do.”
Meanwhile, as is the case in other European countries, Italy has registered a significant shift to the right.
“We are creating an alternative coalition to Renzi, one not limited to the center-right. I think categories of Right and Left are a little outdated — especially since Renzi has very little of the Left,” said Northern League leader Matteo Salvini in a recent interview.
The party’s aim is to build support from Italians “who don’t recognize themselves in Renzi or the 5-Star Movement,” added Massimiliano Fedriga, a League member in the lower house of parliament.
Salvini teamed up with French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and other leaders of right-wing parties and Euro-skeptics at a convention organized in Milan by the Northern league last Thursday.
At the meeting, attended by an estimated 1,500 enthusiastic admirers, Salvini stressed the need to “recover sovereignty and powers from the EU” and added that “if a left-wing government like that of Sweden has decided to repatriate immigrants, it means that Schengen is dead.”
The Northern League was founded as a separatist movement in the early 1990s, campaigning for independence for a northern Italian region it called “Padania.” Its brazen founder Umberto Bossi pledged to liberate industrious northern workers from what he called the subsidizing lazy southerners down in the foot of the Italian peninsula.
No longer a separatist movement, the League now embraces conservatives throughout Italy and last May took 20 percent of the vote in Tuscany’s regional elections, a leftist stronghold and home to Italian PM Matteo Renzi.
“Tuscany is the proof that the days are over when we were labeled as a crazy far-right party,” said 42-year-old Salvini, who took over leadership of the Party in 2013, earning 80 percent of party delegates’ votes.
Forecasts of a tidal wave of as many as 400,000 immigrants into Italy “in the coming weeks” have Italians on edge as the Schengen treaty guaranteeing open internal European borders dissolves before their eyes, and the anti-immigration Northern League seems like an attractive alternative to more and more Italians.
Due to closed northern borders, Italian authorities fear the droves of immigrants arriving on Italy’s shores will have no option but to remain in Italy.
But immigration isn’t the only issue drawing followers to the League. According to Marco Tarchi, professor of political science at the University of Florence, the secret of the League’s new-found success lies in “its competitors’ total neglect of issues that are deeply important to a significant proportion of the electorate, especially the less wealthy ones.”
This includes “those who would like to stop the spread of a progressive and cosmopolitan worldview; those who feel uncomfortable with multi-ethnicity and with living with foreigners, as well as homosexual unions,” said Tarchi.
Fedriga, the League MP, said that an example of this is the League’s defense of Italian pensioners: once the domain of the Left, he said, parties like the PD are “too busy to care about it.”
Nonetheless, the migration issue looms large in the minds of many Italians and they are looking for someone who can effectively address the problem.
Salvini has called Renzi an “accomplice” in Italy’s invasion of illegal immigrants, because of his opposition to closing Italy’s borders and suspending the EU’s passport-free Schengen area.
On membership of the European Union, Salvini says he is “envious of the Brits who will decide in a referendum whether to leave the EU or not.”
“I think next spring we will organize the first great national referendum on Europe,” he said. “Next year will be the occasion for the British to vote whether or not to stay in this disastrous Europe or to save themselves and get out.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome