Politician Fortilio Fontana from the anti-immigrant Northern League said Italy had a stark choice to make over immigration, propelling the contentious topic to the front and centre of the general election campaign.
“We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be wiped out,” said Fontana, the League's candidate to govern the northern Lombardy region.
It was “not a question of being xenophobic or racist, but a question of being logical or rational,” he said in remarks made on Sunday.
While mainstream parties condemned the comments, the centre-right did so half-heartedly and agreed there was a real risk to Italian society in the numbers of migrants arriving here.
Over 600,000 people have landed in Italy since 2014 — rescued as they attempt to reach Europe by sea — and the issue was destined to dominate the political discourse ahead of the March 4th vote.
Amid revulsion in many quarters over his comments, Fontana said on Monday it had been a “slip of the tongue”, before defending himself on Tuesday by claiming that the country's constitution was the first to talk of different “races”.
Italy 'under attack'
Ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose centre-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) party is the League's coalition partner for the elections, said Fontana's comment had been “unfortunate”. But he also said on Tuesday that it would be “a serious mistake to focus too much attention on one wrong word and not on the risk that Europe loses its identity”.
“A 'goody-goody' attitude… to the uncontrolled waves of migration can undermine the foundations of our society,” he said, calling for “reasonable limits” to the numbers of migrants taken in.
The centre-right coalition — which pairs Forza Italia and the League with the smaller rightwing Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) party — is currently favourite to win the election.
Berlusconi's remarks echoed those of League head Matteo Salvini, who said Italy was “under attack”.
“Our culture, our society, our traditions and our way of life are threatened. An invasion is under way,” he said.
He said that contrary to Fontana's claim, “the colour of the skin does not matter. But the risk is real: centuries of history may disappear in the face of Islamization”.
Matteo Renzi, ex-prime minister and head of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), slammed the League's “ravings”.”We were expecting a high-flung, virtuous, noble debate. Instead the rightwing candidate, a League man, talks of 'white race' and 'invasions',” he said on Facebook.