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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Why are Italian politicians suddenly turning to TikTok to woo voters?

Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Renzi and other prominent Italian politicians made their TikTok debuts this week with just weeks to go before the election - but will this sway younger voters?

Berlusconi at a Forza Italia gathering.
Former Italian premier and leader of Forza Italia Silvio Berlusconi is among the latest political leaders to join TikTok. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

With just over three weeks left until Italy’s general elections on Sunday, September 25th, political leaders are taking their campaigning to TikTok, the video-sharing platform beloved by teens and counting 16 million Italian users.

Former premiers Silvio Berlusconi (leader of Forza Italia) and Matteo Renzi (leader of Italia Viva) were among those who joined the channel in the past few days, posting introductory videos that were widely shared online – most likely thanks to their entertainment value, rather than political substance.

@silvio.berlusconi

Ciao ragazzi, eccomi qua. Vi do il benvenuto sul mio canale ufficiale #Tiktok per parlare dei temi che più stanno a cuore a Forza Italia e al sottoscritto e che vi riguardano da vicino: parleremo e discuteremo del vostro #futuro Vi racconterò di come vogliamo rendere l’#Italia un Paese che possa darvi nuove opportunità e la possibilità di realizzare i vostri sogni. Ci rivediamo presto su TikTok ! #silvioberlusconi #berlusconi #elezioni #forzaitalia🇮🇹💪❤️ #politica #giovani

♬ suono originale – Silvio Berlusconi

85-year-old Berlusconi, who’s arguably never been one to shy away from the cameras, opened his first official message to fellow TikTokers with a jovial “Hello guys, here I am!”.

Filmed sitting behind a desk wearing a suit and tie, he went on to congratulate his new audience on their young age – something he admitted to being “a little jealous” of – and briefly laid out his political program, pledging to “create new opportunities” for under-30s.

The video attracted widespread mockery online, with jokes made about his permanent tan: “Silvio, what foundation do you wear?” 

A second video soon followed, with Berlusconi telling a self-deprecating joke involving Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Joe Biden and Pope Francis.

Both videos ended with him moving his head from side to side while saying goodbye “on Tik Tok”, a gesture that seems destined to go viral.

Meanwhile, Renzi’s video was widely shared thanks to a moment of comedic brilliance in which he made fun of his own poor English language proficiency, and his famously convoluted political messages.

@matteorenziufficiale

Anche Matteo Renzi su TikTok? First reaction? Shock! #matteorenzi #italiasulserio #elezioni #25settembre

♬ Epic Music(842228) – Pavel

Other new TikTok users this week included Giovanni Toti (leader of Cambiamo!) and Alessandro Zan (a prominent Democratic Party MP known for his LGBT activism).

These were however by no means the first TikTok members belonging to the Italian political class. Earlier pioneers of ‘TikTok politics’ in Italy include Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d’Italia leader), Matteo Salvini (League leader) and Carlo Calenda (Azione leader).

READ ALSO: Who is Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s likely next prime minister?

So now that nearly all the leaders of the country’s major political parties have landed on the platform (Enrico Letta, you’re up next), you might legitimately wonder why the Italian political class – which has never stood out for its spirit of innovation nor for the young age of its members – has moved en masse to a platform largely populated by teenagers and young adults.

Though we’re in no position to question the authenticity of Italian leaders’ desires to get in step with the times, the move is likely to be due to the growing importance of young voters to their electoral success.

Many of the still-undecided voters in Italy are believed to be in the age bracket that makes up much of TikTok’s audience.

According to estimates from marketing research body Istituto Piepoli, only 48 percent of voters under the age of 35 will turn up at the polling station on September 25th – up by just a meagre three percent against the 2018 elections, when 45 percent of under-35s voted.

READ ALSO: Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

It’s very hard, then, not to see the recent slew of TikTok debuts as a last-ditch attempt on the part of Italian leaders to connect with a large number of Italian citizens that have long been disinterested in politics.

There’s also the fact that the senate voting age has fallen. Up until last year, not all Italian adults could fully participate in the country’s elections as voters needed to be over the age of 25 to vote for senators.

This changed with a reform passed by parliament in July 2021, which means that an additional 3.8 million voters aged between 18 and 25 will be able to vote for their representatives in both the lower house and the senate in the upcoming election.

So, assuming that the TikTok videos are political leaders’ latest attempt to lure these undecided voters, is the move working?

A mere 12 hours after Berlusconi’s first-ever TikTok video was posted, it had already collected as many as 300,000 likes, 18,000 comments and 64,000 shares. Albeit in a far smaller measure, the other leaders also enjoyed favourable numbers.

While party leaders seem to be becoming more aware of the importance of younger voters, we’ll have to wait and see whether TikTok likes and shares will translate into votes and electoral success.

Find all The Local’s latest news on the Italian election race here.

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MIGRANT CRISIS

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”

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