Far-Right League Gains Most from Governing in Italy

The League is up in the polls, despite having done little yet to address Italy’s immigration crisis.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's Northern League, gives a speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, April 29, 2015
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Northern League, gives a speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, April 29, 2015 (European Parliament)

Italy’s far-right League is benefiting the most from the government deal it struck with the populist Five Star Movement earlier this month.

  • In municipal elections on Sunday, the League captured the former left-wing strongholds of Massa, Pisa and Siena in the region of Tuscany.
  • Nationally, the League is tied with the Five Star Movement in the polls. Both get 27-29 percent support. In the last election, the Five Stars got 33 percent support against 17 percent for the League.

Good deal

When the two parties formed a coalition, the Five Stars agreed to put an academic in charge of the Finance Ministry to implement their signature policy — a basic income — while the League’s Matteo Salvini became interior minister.

Italy specialist Leonardo Carella predicted that the deal would work out in the League’s favor:

Tying your party’s reputation to a complex, costly policy to be implemented by a finance minister you don’t control: bad idea.

Tying your party’s reputation to action on immigration, largely unscrutinizable, with your leader in charge of the ministry: good idea.

Two directions

The League has been pulling support from two directions:

  1. The right: Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the far-right Brothers of Italy are down in the polls. Salvini is now the undisputed leader of the right.
  2. Five Star Movement: The Democrats, formerly in power, have not been able to win (back) left-wing voters.

Symbolic measures

Salvini has so far focused on the small:

  • He turned away a ship, the Aquarius, carrying some 600 immigrants from Africa. It was allowed to dock in Spain.
  • He closed all Italian ports to refugees. (Impossible to enforce without impeding trade.)
  • He has proposed to take a census of Romani people in order to be able to deport those living in Italy illegally.

The measures range from the symbolic to the offensive, but they have generated support for the League.

Meanwhile, the Five Stars have had shelve their basic income until at least next year.

More effective policies

The parties did agree migration policies that should be more effective:

  • Deporting an estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants.
  • Building more detention centers.
  • Rewriting EU law, which currently stipulates that immigrants and refugees must apply for asylum in the first country they reach, which is often Italy.

The first and second will require more money and manpower — and Salvini has called for cuts in the migration budget.

The third will require consensus among EU member states.

Salvini’s biggest challenge isn’t Germany, which ignored EU law in 2015 to admit around one million refugees. It’s convincing nationalists in Austria, Hungary and Poland. They may sympathize with his program, but they are also wary of any change in policy that could see more immigrants coming their way.