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As Italy prepares for an unpredictable election, one candidate is seen as a ray of hope

Emma Bonino has been called the country’s "conscience" for her pro-immigrant platform.

Emma Bonino participates at the press conference on the handing over of signatures of the campaign "Ero Straniero" (I was a foreigner) for a new law on immigration in Piazza Montecitorio, on October 27, 2017 in Rome, Italy. (credit: Simona Granati - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Emma Bonino participates at the press conference on the handing over of signatures of the campaign "Ero Straniero" (I was a foreigner) for a new law on immigration in Piazza Montecitorio, on October 27, 2017 in Rome, Italy. (credit: Simona Granati - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

MILAN, ITALY — Italians will head to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballots in a closely-watched parliamentary election that will determine the country’s governing majority. In a country where fascism is enjoying a resurrection, the far right is feeling empowered, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments are spreading far into the mainstream, many see the election as an ominous harbinger of Europe’s future.

The only hope may be one of the stalwarts of Italy’s radical party over the last 40-plus years — Emma Bonino. Despite the populist tide consuming Italy, bringing with it unrealistic solutions to complex problems, Bonino’s Piu Europa (More Europe) party could gain enough votes to have a moderating influence on the next government coalition.

A two-time minister in the Italian government, activist, and former European commissioner, Bonino is one of Italy’s most widely respected politicians. Her approval ratings are around 43 percent, according to The New York Times, second in Italy only to current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. She’s been called the country’s conscience for her platform that welcomes immigrants and integration, as well as for her battles to legalize abortion, her history of hunger strikes, and arrests for civil rights issues.

“You can look at the fights I have waged with this point of view: I support a democratic liberal order and believe in the centrality of the individual, his rights, but also his responsibilities,” she told the Guardian in February. At almost 70, Bonino feels her history of fighting for civil rights is far from finished. “If I look back 50 years ago, if you look at women’s rights, I cannot even recognise my country, the change has been enormous. That doesn’t mean it is all done. On the contrary, rights are a process, and if you don’t care for them, you can lose them from morning to night.”

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This time around she’s campaigned heavily to integrate immigrants by granting citizenship to children born in Italy to immigrant parents. She’s also deeply disturbed by racist incidents and the disparities in how the press reports crimes by white Italians versus crimes by African immigrants. She feels many of the country’s current leaders are mismanaging the issue of racism.

“There is no excuse for this kind of thing,” she said. “There are many things you can do to counter this phenomenon: public speeches, videos, talking in schools, exactly like the entrepreneurs of fear use. It is not true that we don’t have tools to react, we are simply not using them in an assertive way.”

The lack of action has resulted in an increase in racist and fascist incidents over the past couple of years. The most high profile incident occurred when an Italian man drove around the central town of Macerata in early February shooting at black people and wounding six. The man, Luca Traini, 28, had ran for local elections as a member of the xenophobic Northern League last year. He received zero votes.

A pedestrian passes in front of election hoardings in Milan on March 1, 2018, prior to the Italian presidential elections. (credit: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
A pedestrian passes in front of election hoardings in Milan on March 1, 2018, prior to the Italian presidential elections. (credit: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

The hate crime was cited as a reaction to the arrest of a Nigerian immigrant for the alleged murder and dismemberment of an 18-year-old Italian woman. Instead of condemning the reaction, the country’s right-wing parties blamed “illegal immigration” for compelling the man to commit the crime.

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These are the forces Piu Europa is fighting. Bonino’s party needs to gain 3 percent of the nation’s votes in order to be granted 20 members of parliament and a potential place in the government. At the moment, the populist Five Star Movement is expected to gain the most votes, but their hesitance to join other parties in a coalition means they’re unlikely to be able to form a government alone. A coalition must receive 40 percent of the vote to have the opportunity to form a government. Polls suggest no individual party or coalition will pass the 40 percent threshold and analysts predict the most likely scenario could be a grand coalition between center-right and center-left.

The largest number of votes are expected to go to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, though the inclusion of the Northern League (now simply called the ‘League’ to appeal to Italians outside its stronghold in Lombardy) and the Brothers of Italy means the coalition has strong influence from the far right. Should Bonino’s party meet the requirement and Berlusconi’s coalition fail to pass the 40 percent mark, however, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party could split from its far right allies and form a grand coalition with the center-left.

“She’s not new (to politics) but what she’s doing is quite new,” Marco Cacciotto, an Italian political commentator, strategist, and a professor at the University of Milan, told ThinkProgress. “She doesn’t have a populist vision of immigrants like most parties, especially those in the center-right who say ‘no more immigrants’. Most of the other leaders are making prophecies to reduce taxes and reduce immigration, but this is not possible. She is saying, ‘these promises are not true, and I prefer to tell voters the truth.’”

And Bonino’s strategy seems to be working. Local media reported that the Five Star Movement is considering teaming up with the center-left coalition and Bonino’s party. Italian daily Corriere della Sera recently reported that Berlusconi was considering Bonino for Prime Minister. She would also likely have a strong influence over issues like immigration should the Democratic Party — a center-left group that has fractured in recent months and seen the defection of more left-leaning elements — join a coalition with Berlusconi’s center right.

“Should the Democratic Party be a part of the governing coalition, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her take important role in government itself,” Dr. Franco Pavoncello, an Italian political analyst and president of John Cabot University, told ThinkProgress. “She does not have the kind of influence over Italian public opinion or society, but, at same time, she certainly is seen as person of integrity and principles, especially with regard to democratic values. She certainly has an important prestige in the country.”

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How well she does at the polls on Sunday will not only leave most Italians on tenterhooks, but will also likely worry two other groups — immigrants and people of color — in a country where the revival of the racist right is an existential concern. The European Union, too, fears their fourth largest economy (third, if Brexit proceeds as planned) might succumb to the populist scourge.

“The composition of the new incoming coalition will almost certainly be decided, through inter-party negotiation after the results are known, rather than being decided by the outcome of the election itself, with a more-or-less grand coalition centered around an arrangement involving the centre-right Forza Italia, led by Berlusconi, and the centre-left Democratic Party being a possibility,” James Newell, an analyst of Italian politics and professor at the University in Salford, Manchester, told ThinkProgress.

“In such a scenario, Bonino’s votes could, of course, be decisive,” Newell added. “But whether or not this will be the case is anyone’s guess.”