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Italy’s election campaign is descending into a race row

Italy was gripped by a racism row on Tuesday as parties from across the political spectrum weighed in on calls to defend the "white race", sparking anger but also drawing support.

Italy's election campaign is descending into a race row
L-R: Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini, and Matteo Renzi, who have all commented on a Northern League senator who called to defend the 'white race'. Photos: Alberto Pizzoli, Giuseppe Cacace, Andreas S

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.

READ ALSO: Italy's Fertility Day campaign slammed as racist

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.

VIDEO: Italian neo-Nazis interrupt volunteers' meeting to bemoan migrant 'invasion'

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.

ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Italian anti-immigrant leader Matteo Salvini was disappointed on Monday at his party's result in general elections but pledged to work with Giorgia Meloni, who triumphed, to form a government.

Doubts rise over 'loose cannon' Salvini after Italy's election

Whether Salvini would keep his word – or survive politically long enough to do so – was not clear, after his anti-immigrant League party dropped below the 10 percent threshold at Sunday’s vote.

This was a sharp decrease after the party swept to office with 17 percent of the vote in 2018 – since when it has been eclipsed by Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A glum Salvini, who has clashed with Meloni on a range of policies, not least her stance on Russia and the war in Ukraine, told reporters that winning just nine percent had been a blow.

It was “not a number I wanted or worked for”, he said.

Salvini added that he had “gone to bed fairly pissed off but woke up ready to go” and was now “looking on the bright side”.

Meloni “was good. We will work together for a long time”, he promised.

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally against the government on October 19, 2019 in Rome.

Italy’s right-wing coalition, consisting of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, has promised to slash taxes and put ‘Italians first’. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The League may now have to battle to ensure its priorities are not sidelined in Meloni’s government programme, analysts said.

And while ex-interior minister Salvini has repeatedly said he wants his former job back, it is looking increasingly unlikely to happen.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“The result… throws into question Matteo Salvini’s leadership” of his own party, she said, adding that there were those within the League who thought they would be better off without the “loose cannon”.

READ ALSO: Meloni, Salvini, Berlusconi: The key figures in Italy’s likely new government

He said Meloni had benefited from being the only leader to stay outside the coalition formed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi in February 2021.

For the League, being part of that administration “was not easy”, he said, but insisted “I would do it again.”

‘Dangerous when cornered’

Meloni secured around 26 percent of the vote in Sunday’s poll, putting her on course to become the first woman to serve as Italian prime minister.

She campaigned as part of a coalition including Salvini’s League and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which won around eight percent.

Italian politics is notoriously unstable, with nearly 70 governments since 1946, and there were concerns disagreements with Salvini may precipitate a fresh crisis.

Lorenzo Pregliasco, co-founder of the YouTrend polling site, said Italian party leaders proved “dangerous” when they felt cornered.

The League head “might not create any problems in the short term” but “watch out for the Salvini factor, if he survives politically as a leader”.

Salvini however said that after years of unwieldy coalitions, Italy finally had “a government chosen by its citizens, with a clear majority” in both houses of parliament.

And he hoped it could “go for at least five years straight, without changes, without upheavals, focusing on things to do”.

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