It’s immigration, stupid! On 4 March 2018, Italians head to the polls to elect their next government. International media coverage has been focusing on the debate around illegal migration in Italy, talking about “anti-migrant anger” finally bubbling over and defining the election. Is that really what most ordinary Italians care about, though?
The latest polling suggests that the right-wing coalition led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (Europe’s original “Donald Trump”) is likely to get the most votes. Berlusconi will indeed rely on the anti-immigration Lega Nord for support, though even then he will likely struggle to achieve a working majority (and, of course, Berlusconi himself is currently banned from public office, so will have to settle for the role of kingmaker).
The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement could end up with the greatest number of votes for a single party. Their official position on immigration is that they want to crack down illegal immigration, share the burden with other EU states, but also open up safe and legal routes for migrants to enter Europe. However, the 5-Star Movement will be unable to form a government on its own and has ruled out a formal coalition with other parties (though it is apparently open to negotiations on a policy-by-policy basis).
In short, nobody really knows what’s going to happen, particularly as this is the first election fought under Italy’s controversial new election law. So, is it maybe premature to blame everything on immigration?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Rosy, warning that far-right political parties are capitalising on the immigration debate in Italy to boost support. Is she right?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Professor Piero Ignazi from the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna. How would he respond to Rosy comment?
Well, this is a very important issue. Immigration has become one of the most important questions in Italian politics. However, unemployment and the job market are still at the top of the priorities of Italian voters.
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Gianni Riotta, an Italian journalist, visiting professor in Italian studies at Princeton University, regular contributor to the daily newspaper La Stampa and former Editor-in-chief of the financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. What would he say?
No, I don’t think so. It is going to be an issue, for sure, and it will attract voters to the right-wing, populist movements – especially Lega Nord, but it won’t be decisive. People who have strong opinions against immigration will vote for the Lega, and people with very strong pro-immigration opinions will vote for the Democratic Party or the radical left. But this is not going to be an election decided by immigration.
On the other hand, we also had a comment from Mario, who makes the case that the economy is going to decide the election. He says that, in Italy, it feels like the 2008 global economic crisis never ended, that politicians are all corrupt, and that salaries have been stuck at 2003 levels while prices have been constantly increasing. Isn’t this, ultimately, what voters care about?
What would Piero Ignazi say to Mario?
Well, in a way it’s true that the economy is the most important issue, but on the other hand it’s not about an evaluation of the economy as it looks today that will move voters to choose one party over another. It’s the rather the future outlook for the economy that will be the most important factor.
Apparently, the Italian electorate is quite pessimistic, and has a negative outlook on the economic perspective of Italy in coming years. That will be quite a strong driver to vote against the party in government today.
Finally, how would Gianni Riotta respond to the same comment?
Mario is right that in Italy the 2008 financial crisis had a much more damaging impact than in many other countries. This has nothing to do with corruption, it has to do with the structure of the Italian manufacturing sector. Italy has the second-biggest manufacturing sector in Europe, and the sixth in the world, so it’s very strong, but 4/5th of the companies in Italy are small- or medium-sized. This means that they are not really able to export and compete in a now-globalised market. So, when cheap credit and the protection that politicians and banks could afford drained out with the 2008 crisis, it all went belly-up. The unions at the time made it almost impossible in Italy to have any kind of social flexibility. So, the system was rigid and was devastated by the crisis.
I think that the economy will be crucial in these elections. There is actually now growth back in Italy, and the economic outlook is much more favourable than it used to be, but the positive effect hasn’t impacted on salaries yet, and especially in the South there are thousands and thousands of people that are unemployed, so they are angry and start voting for the 5-Star Movement of the maverick comedian Beppe Grillo.
Will the debate on illegal migrants decide the result of Italy’s election? Or is the economy more important to Italian voters? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!