How Matteo Salvini used the threat of immigrant invasion to conquer the electorate

Francesco Sorana
Photo by Gabor Kovacs
Published on January 20, 2020

Matteo Salvini has managed to transform a small regionalist party – that less than 10 years ago was advocating for the secession of an imaginary land called “Padania” from the rest of Italy – into a country-wide nationalist party after becoming federal secretary of the Northern League in December 2013. Following his appointment, he has managed to reshape the ideology and communication strategy of the party, refocusing the Leagues’s political agenda around nationalist, conservative and neoliberal platforms. The party ceased to focus on the North-South comparison and to represent southern Italy’s “backwardness” as a burden that the wealthy and hard-working North was unjustly forced to bear. The League shifted its rhetorical strategy from one focused on the internal differences of the Italian people to an external one, pitting all native Italians against any foreign influence, European or otherwise. Salvini claimed he sought to prioritize the interest of Italians first and pinpointed EU institutions, immigration, and a lack of internal security as the biggest threats to those interests.

The solutions to social issues proposed by the party underlined its rejection of the EU’s policies and ideology. Since its establishment, the League has been openly opposed to immigration, which is still one of the most important issues driving the significant increase in the League’s voter base: “both logic and empirical observation point to the Northern League as the most direct electoral outlet for discontent with the presence of migrants and migrant-driven increases in crime” (Salucci 2015, p.13). The increasing support for the League has thus been linked to the increasing number of immigrants in Italy, as during the so-called “migrant crisis” the party’s support grew steadily. During this time generalizations about immigrants also increased dramatically, in the media and in the public discourse.

In 2018 the Italian elections were solidly won by the two main populist parties; the Five Star Movement with 32.6% of the vote and the League with 17.3%. The election’s outcome also showed that more than one-fourth of voters made a different choice compared to the 2013 national election, meaning that voters’ political leanings have become increasingly volatile and that the League and the M5S electoral campaigns have been largely successful. The League experienced an increased jump in support of 13.3% compared to 2013 elections, and political surveys suggest that as of 17/01/20 the party has further increased its support, reaching 32.9%. However, the flow of migrants arriving in Italy during this same period had dropped significantly. From this data we can conclude that there is no direct correlation between the influx of immigrants and the increased popularity of the League. Instead, it appears that how immigration is represented in the media and the political arena has more of an impact on elections than the actual number of immigrants entering the country. The political narratives of right-wing parties, and especially of the League, has largely exploited the “migrant crisis” that began between 2014 and 2015 and then dropped sharply in the following years. Since then, the League has been portraying the migratory trends towards Italy in the terms of an “invasion”. Even if numerically inconsistent, this move proved to be politically crucial.

One research study showed that Italy has witnessed a shift in the perception and depiction of foreigners by the media and by politicians. These actors began to describe non-European migrants using derogatory generalizations, linking their presence in the country to security concerns and cultural unrest, and adopting a completely different attitude from that reserved to Westerners and other Europeans. Salvini’s League also adopted this narrative, shifting from the traditional ethnic-regionalist perspective of the party to a broader nationalist and nativist one, which refocused his speeches on a strategic style of communication that has been defined as politics of fear (Wodak 2015). These attacks against those who do not belong to the ‘people’, such as immigrants, Muslims and Roma people, among others, were orchestrated through the use of a rhetoric of exclusion, permeated with racist, Islamophobic and depreciative sentiments, which aimed to represent these peoples as an existential threat to the security of the country, as well as to the Christian traditions and the cultural values of the national in-group. The identification of “the Italian people” is therefore also determined in oppositional terms, by attacking all those who are not part of it.

The rhetorical strategies adopted by Matteo Salvini have often been based on deceptive statements and include the use of widespread generalizations. These statements are then cleverly delivered in a kind of “post-truth” context, in which the passion and strength with which the statements are made acquires more importance than their factual accuracy. Ultimately, their purpose is to depict the leader as the sole defender of the people against their enemies. The electoral campaign conducted by Matteo Salvini often focused on the “war on immigration” and harped on the importance of internal national security. This communication strategy has had a decisive and lasting impact on the League’s electoral success.

Moreover, 51% of his electorate said that they voted for him because of his extreme positions, more than those who did because they thought he was an honest leader (49%) or because he inspired confidence (47%). We connected this positive perception of the political leader with the still widespread belief that the migratory flow has not decreased, but rather increased, and to the evidence that the new and stricter policies aimed to stop migrants are widely supported by the voters of the League. We can assume that not only did Salvini’s League gain a fundamental portion of his votes through the exploitation of this single theme, but that it is also likely that the League will continue to gain support as it did during the year following the elections.

The issue of immigration was the central political conflict around which the Italian elections of 2018 revolved, and the results of this election were largely dependent upon the strategies offered by the political parties to tackle this specific issue. The League has been able to mobilize and garner support from those citizens who are against the entry of foreigners into Italy, who are afraid of the threat of an “invasion,” the threat of increased criminal activity, and risks to social order, as well as those concerned with the alleged damages to the national fabric and the continuation of ‘Christian-western’ culture. Left-wing and democratic parties in Italy, who have been heavily defeated in the elections and are still looking to find ways to regain their lost consensus, will need to reshape their narratives and political agendas in order to combat this wave of popular nationalism.

How Italian society, and the European Union as a whole, responds to the challenges posed by European right-wing populist parties, will determine if we will continue to witness a trend towards further isolationism, and an increasingly repulsive approach to immigration, or move in the direction of upholding human rights for all persons in the European liberal democracies. The migratory flow has decreased, but the causes that have pushed millions of human beings to take to the sea and land routes that lead to the European Union are yet to be resolved: in the foreseeable future migrants will continue to arrive, even if EU member states continue to adopt stricter closed-border policies. Migration is here to stay.

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Zac Morgan
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