Four months after the new Italian government was installed, the reactionary nature of the coalition between the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right Lega (League) emerges more clearly each day, writes Daniele Fulvi.
Despite the fact that the League won only about 17% of the votes in the last elections (compared with 32% for the M5S), the interior minister and League leader Matteo Salvini is emerging as the undisputed head of the government. He is dictating the government agenda as he sees fit.
Moreover, the radically conservative and racist propaganda of Salvini is giving cause for concern to both progressive and radical forces, and the European Union (EU) neoliberal establishment.
Salvini’s intent is clear: scapegoat immigrants and refugees to claim “illegal immigration” is the source of all evil. His strategy seems to be working, since, according to the latest polls, the League could win more than 32% in a new vote.
Salvini has already demonstrated how racist and intolerant he can be towards immigrants. Emblematic is the case of the Italian coastguard ship Ubaldo Diciotti last month that rescued 177 asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea.
After docking at Catania in Sicily, southern Italy, Salvini refused to let refugees disembark for more than a week. He asked other EU states to take them and provoked a humanitarian crisis.
Salvini’s goal (at least in words) is to renegotiate the Dublin Regulation on immigration. According to this, refugees can apply for asylum only in one single EU country, which decides the outcome of the applications. The process cannot be restarted in a different jurisdiction.
He is right in opposing the regulation, but what he neglects to mention is that the Dublin Regulation was signed and ratified by the centre-right Silvio Berlusconi government in 2003, of which the then-Northern League was part.
Moreover, since 2014 the European Parliament held 22 meetings to discuss the Dublin Regulation, and Salvini (who has been a member of that Parliament since March) didn’t take part in any. One could wonder how he intends to reform EU immigration policies since he made no attempt to do so when he had the chance.
On top of that, Salvini also invited the fascist Hungarian President Viktor Orban to discuss a common line against “illegal immigration” and discuss how to protect borders and “national identities”. Needless to say, the meeting has been welcomed by other fascists such as France’s Marine Le Pen and US alt-right figure Steve Bannon.
In regards to the Ubaldo Diciotti, Salvini is also under investigation for the unlawful imprisonment of the asylum seekers. In response, he threatened the judiciary, arguing that he has “been elected by people, while magistrates haven’t been elected by anyone”.
“I will continue to do my job”, Salvini added, “because the Italian economy needs to be helped and protected, and not investigated continuously.”
The majority of Italian people seem to support Salvini’s agenda, but there is also a significant section of the population opposing it. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest both the Ubaldo Diciotti standoff and the meeting with Orban. Despite this, the Italian left seems still unable to propose a credible alternative to Salvini’s policies.
In this context, we must stress the role of the M5S in relation to Salvini’s reactionary agenda. That is, not only is it avoiding taking a stand against the League’s racism and homophobia, it sometimes indulges these sentiments.
For instance, between June and July, there has been a dramatic rise in racist attacks as well as daily hate speech against refugees and immigrants in the media. Both Salvini and the M5S front-man Luigi Di Maio have said in response that Italy does not have a problem with racism. Rather, the “racism emergency is an invention of newspapers”, despite the ugly reality.
Also, Salvini’s party has been found guilty of fraud against the state and misappropriation of €49 billion of public funds. In relation to this matter, M5S “absolved” Salvini, saying he was not personally involved in his party’s fraud.
However, M5S seems to ignore the fact that it has been proven that Salvini was well aware of the fraud and used the illegal funds for his political activities.
This case clearly shows the M5S’s double standards: it made its fortune campaigning in favour of legality and against the Democratic Party’s corruption, but now that its government allies are involved in corruption, it has become defenders of the presumption of innocence.
Apart from a few rare exceptions, M5S is now more than ever a catalyst for social discontent. Therefore, it prefers to indulge the increasing xenophobic and reactionary sentiments of Italian people, rather than opening a debate on the real causes of the social malaise.
In this sense, M5S is fundamentally a response to the failure of the centre-left, both in Italy and in the EU. But rather than focusing on the causes of this failure, it is amplifying its effects. That is, rather than proposing itself as a new progressive movement aiming at granting workers’ and civil rights with no ethnic and religious distinctions, M5S prefers to foment social hatred, because it is more convenient from an electoral point of view.
Respectable rulers should be able to eradicate people’s discontent, rather than adding fuel to the fire. But it is undoubtedly easier to serve the interests of the rich and find scapegoats, such as immigrants or the old political class.
As things stand now, the government has done nothing to solve Italy’s real problems, such as huge unemployment, labour exploitation and the lack of public services, healthcare, education and infrastructure.
What is worse, they will not need to lift a finger, as long as they will be able to blame everything on “illegal immigrants”.