Italy’s Voters Aren’t Anti-Immigration—But Their Government Is

The country’s electorate is torn between humanitarianism and nationalism, and it wound up with leaders on the nationalist side.

The Italian flag flutters at the Quirinal Palace during the two-day talks on government formation, after the March national elections, in Rome on April 4, 2018
The Italian flag flutters at the Quirinal Palace during the two-day talks on government formation, after the March national elections, in Rome on April 4, 2018 (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters)

ROME—Italy’s populist coalition government is dominated by Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and deputy prime minister who fills the airwaves and social media with his tough talk on deporting illegal immigrants. Over the weekend, he cited Mussolini—“more enemies, more honor”—on the dictator’s birthday. He’s warned that immigrants are eroding Italy’s security and identity, called for an ethnically based census of non–Italian Roma, and threatened to remove the police protection from a famous journalist and public figure targeted by the Mafia—a man who also happens to be one of Salvini’s most visible critics. He’s a deft communicator and savvy opportunist, and it works. Although his right-wing League party is the junior partner in the coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement that came to power in May, Salvini has set the tone and doubled his party’s standing, with both parties now polling at around 30 percent of the electorate.

But how much does the Italian electorate actually share Salvini’s views on immigration? Italy has deeply conservative tendencies, but its voters also have strong humanitarian impulses and an inclination for realpolitik over ideology. How much of Salvini’s constant tweeting and the video messages he posts on Facebook Live is rhetoric, and how much is real? The rhetoric has begun to do more than shift the tone in Italy, which in recent days has seen a spate of violent attacks on immigrants by Italians. But does this new government reflect a real change in Italian society, especially on questions of immigration, or is it more a matter of the complexities of Italian parliamentary politics, in which small parties can have loud voices, especially if they’re amplified by being in chorus with Donald Trump?

In Rome this month I put those questions to a range of people, including Aboubakar Soumahoro, a 38-year-old labor-union leader who was born in Ivory Coast. He came to Italy in his early 20s to work as a fruit picker before obtaining a degree in sociology at the University of Naples Federico II. Last month, L’Espresso, a prominent left-wing newsweekly magazine, put him on its cover next to Salvini, beneath the headline “Uomini e no,” or “Men and Not Men,” implying that Salvini wasn’t acting humanely, and casting Soumahoro, symbolically at least, as the face of a de facto cultural opposition. (Salvini later criticized the cover.)

“The politicians have a plan for society,” Soumahoro told me, as we sat in the offices of the USB labor union for which he’s on the executive committee. “What’s happening now isn’t happening by chance. It’s a plan. Faced with widespread general impoverishment, which is the consequence of austerity and other policies, it’s clear that to get out of this situation, they don’t want to address the roots of the problem.” Instead, he said, politicians began amping up the “stigmatization of migrants on a social and economic plane,” linking the country’s problems to out-of-control immigration rather than decades of political mismanagement of the economy (coupled with the challenges of the euro). “Some people were tricked,” Soumahoro told me.

His union has sought to rectify what he calls the “dehumanization” of migrant workers. Would-be immigrants, especially agricultural workers, are granted residence permits by their employers, a situation Soumahoro says makes them subject to blackmail. I asked Soumahoro where he found allies for his efforts. On the left? Among Catholics? He said he found it across different segments of society, including some members of the Catholic Church hierarchy. “There’s another Italy,” he said. The fact that the Five Star Movement and Salvini are in power “doesn’t mean that the people who voted represent all of Italy.”

But that other Italy hasn’t yet found expression in the new government—or in any strong political opposition. National elections in March failed to produce a clear majority and the centrist parties, the center-left Democratic Party and the center-right Forza Italia party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, had their lowest showings ever. They are both in the opposition now, and a weak one at best, even though Berlusconi’s party ran on a ticket with Salvini’s League. Italy’s current ruling coalition scrambles the typical divide between government and opposition in ways that actually pit the two coalition partners’ electorates against each other more than against the actual opposition. The irony is that the true opposition to the League is its senior coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, whose leader, Luigi Di Maio, has been upstaged by Salvini, as has Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a weak compromise figure totally beholden to the parties who chose him. Even before this current right-wing populist wave in the West—Trump, Brexit, etc.—Italy was divided in complex ways that defied the traditional split between left and right, with high levels of cynicism about its political class.

It’s hard to map out, let alone quantify, the political impulses in Italy today, but a new study complicates the narrative that the right-wing government was brought to power on a wave of anti-immigration sentiment. Instead, the study finds Italian voters are generally sympathetic to asylum seekers but have wound up with a government that’s not. Conducted by More in Common, a nonprofit initiative aimed at combating authoritarianism and xenophobia, and the polling firm Ipsos MORI, and based on a sample of 2,000 people, the study found that more than 70 percent of Italians believe in granting asylum to some immigrants. In one telling result, when asked if Italy should start sending the people-smugglers’ boats back across the Mediterranean, even at the cost of some people’s lives, only 15 percent of those polled said they agreed with the idea. That figure rose to 46 percent for League voters, but was at 17 percent for Five Star Movement voters, underscoring an incoherence in the coalition that won’t easily be resolved. (In a dramatic example in June, Salvini barred Italian ports from receiving a ship operated by an NGO carrying more than 600 immigrants who had been rescued at sea; after more than a week of political brouhaha, it docked in Spain instead.)

Above all, the study found the main divisions in Italy to be between those who favor a more open society and those who want a more closed one—currents that are also at play in the United States under Trump and the Britain of Brexit. The study paints a picture of Italy as a fragmented society where the moral impulse to welcome the stranger runs up against economic instability, a sense that the European Union has failed to help Italy contend with nearly half a million immigrants who have arrived in recent years, and a sense among many Italians that they no longer feel at home in their own country. Those emotions are reflected in a coalition that, for all its differences, came to power on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment and economic anxiety. The study found that 80 percent of Italians believe globalization has harmed Italy, but are divided about questions of identity and immigration, torn between what can loosely be defined as humanitarianism and nationalism.

The More in Common study also found a majority of respondents believe that to fix Italy’s problems, the country needs “a strong leader willing to break the rules.” (Another study released on Monday by the Italian sociologist Ilvo Diamanti, in the center-left daily La Repubblica, also found a majority of Italians wanted a strong leader, and it identified a divide between party leaders and their electorates.) Italy is, after all, a country with a history of strongmen, from Mussolini to Berlusconi and now Salvini, who is playing the role for the social-media era. “This is Salvini’s government,” Paolo Flores d’Arcais, the editor of MicroMega, a left-wing journal of ideas, told me in Rome this month. “The Five Star Movement are completely subordinate for a simple reason—because if Italy voted tomorrow, Salvini would win by a landslide. He’s acting like prime minister and even like the president of the republic.”

Yet Salvini’s League party only won 17 percent of the vote in the March elections. Does his party’s growing support, and Italians’ expressed desire for a strong leader, mean that the voters are coming around to his ideology? Not necessarily. Flores d’Arcais pointed to Sicily as “a perfect laboratory” for how Italian politics can shift quickly, and independently of ideological drivers. In the early 1990s, the center-right Christian Democratic party collapsed in a bribery scandal, and after a season of murderous Mafia attacks on magistrates and other public officials, a center-left mayor, Leoluca Orlando, came to power in Palermo. “Within three months, the electorate went from the Christian Democrats to Leoluca Orlando, whose politics were the complete opposite,” Flores d’Arcais told me. Then, when the center-right Berlusconi first came to power in 1994, he won Sicily by a landslide. “It’s the same with the Five Star Movement. Their voters are the same people, but their state of mind has changed,” he added. “They veer between rage and hope.” The winds can shift quickly.

Both the Five Star Movement and the League grew roots in Italy where the mainstream parties seemed to have lost touch. Indeed, the More in Common study found that 73 percent of Italians believe traditional parties no longer care about them. But what is this government actually offering, especially in terms of economic stability and what it can deliver? Not much, in the view of Fabrizio Barca, an economist and a former minister in the technocratic government of Mario Monti. “Racism is Salvini’s weapon,” Barca told me in Rome this month. “He invented an enemy because he understood he couldn’t deliver. It’s exactly what Orbán did,” he said of the nativist Hungarian leader whom Salvini has said he admires. A few years ago, Barca traveled around Italy talking to citizens and proposed an overhaul of the center-left Democratic Party to reflect their concerns. The party structure, under then–Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, rejected his ideas—reflecting a divide not unlike the one in the Democratic Party between supporters of Bernie Sanders and those of Hillary Clinton. “The League and the Five Star Movement did what I thought the [Democratic Party] should do,” Barca told me. He now runs the Forum on Inequality, a think tank.

It’s an issue that’s not going away. The More in Common study divided Italian society into seven segments and found that the largest percentage was what it called “disengaged moderates,” who also made up the majority of Five Star Movement voters. For Italy to push back the nationalism, nativism, and xenophobia that Salvini is pushing forward, the study suggests, Italy’s disengaged moderates would somehow have to engage. That’s effectively what Soumahoro had told me. “It’s not just refugees and migrants on these rough seas, but all of society,” he said. “If the boat sinks, we all sink.”