An ancient gated extension of the city where left-leaning Italians once fought against Mussolini and Hitler has now become a breeding ground for right-wing populism.
ROME — The Municipality 5 of Rome extends from Porta Maggiore, one of the ancient Aurelian-era gates in Rome, and reaches the so-called Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA), a circular highway that surrounds the Eternal City. Hosting almost 250,000 people, this working-class neighbourhood was developed during the World War II and it was here that many battles were fought by communist members to protect Italy against a fascist Germany.
Until the early 2000s, Porta Maggiore mainly voted for the leftist parties. But the voting pattern changed in the 2016 local election, in which the centre-left coalition bagged the third spot, behind the coalition of two right-wing parties—the Matteo Salvini’s League and the Brothers of Italy. The Five Star Movement, a tech-savvy, anti-establishment political force, came first.
“Two reasons made this area shift from being a leftist fortress to being a territory in which the left-wing parties are marginal,” said Fabio Sabbatani Schiuma, a long-standing right-wing politician, who was one of the 2016 presidential candidates for Municipality 5.
“[The first] is the crisis of the (left-wing) parties’ territorial structures that weakened their presence in the suburbs," 49-year-old Schiuma told TRT World. "And [the second reason is] the lack of legality towards the misbehavior of some foreigners that turned the suburbs in a ticking time bomb.”
Right-wing parties have made electoral gains in recent years. Since Italians will go to the polls on March 4, there is a strong possibility that the far-right may emerge as a decisive force. Though pollsters predict a hung parliament, there is also a possibility of a coalition between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party and the controversial right-wing League led by Matteo Salvini.
Schiuma is one of the leading campaigners of the far-right in Municipality 5. A round-faced man with an unkempt beard, Schiuma has earned a reputation of building door-to-door campaigns. For instance, he played an instrumental role in collecting signatures for “Us with Salvini” campaign in 2016, seeking a new law to ban the construction of mosques in Italy.
Schiuma, who has swung between several right-wing political groups, believes that the centre-left parties have lost their perspective on Italian politics and people are no longer interested in their electoral agenda. “The centre-left is seen as the party that promotes the arrival of immigrants and the Five Star Movement [to which the mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi belongs] is seen as a front that’s incapable of enforcing law. So people have moved to the right wing,” he told TRT World.
“Take for example some Bangladeshi foreigners that rented a space in which they created an illegal mosque,” Schiuma continued. “They even put gas tanks, without any permission and without anyone intervening. This lack of observance of the laws is just not okay for Italians, who in turn need to comply with them."
Amid the right-wing surge, Matteo Salvini emerged as a strong contender. He is the leader of the League, formerly known as Northern League, a right-wing anti-immigration and anti-European Union party. Until a few months ago, and throughout its entire existence, the League had one single objective: to obtain the autonomy of the regions in Northern Italy.
But today the party is seen differently. Forty-five-year-old Salvini has abandoned his secessionist northern leanings and entered Italy’s mainstream politics. He doesn’t shy away from saying that he could be the next Italian Prime Minister. Last year in February, he swore on the gospel that he would be loyal to Italian citizens should he be appointed as the head of the new government. The act was futile since all the legislatures and parliamentarians are legally bound to only swear by the Italian Constitution.
Poll predictions suggest that it would be hard for Salvini to accomplish his prime ministerial dream. The League is expected to gain 13 percent of vote and become a second political force within the centre-right coalition – the first being Forza Italia, led by Berlusconi.
The same polls show the centre-right coalition at 36 percent, almost seven to eight points above the other main competitors: the centre-left coalition, led by the Democratic Party of former premier Matteo Renzi, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party.
The composition of the centre-right coalition (and its stability in case it is given a mandate to form a government) is a major theme in this election campaign: Forza Italia, a liberal party close to the European Union and two far-right parties, the League and the Brothers of Italy who are against the European Union. Can these two forces come together and not falter immediately after the vote?
Besides the euro and the EU, the other main issue for these right-wing parties is the arrival of immigrants in Italy.
The 5th Municipality of Rome has an above-average foreign population compared to the rest of Rome. Fifteen percent of its inhabitants are from a Romanian community from Romania and from the second-largest Bangladeshi community in Europe, after London, according the Municipality of Roma.
“But foreigners are not the problem,” said Alessandro Rosi, welfare councilor in the 5th Municipality from 2013 to 2016 for the Democratic Party. “The population vents their anger on them because they think immigrants receive all the attention from the state and the parties, an attention that the local people do not receive.”
Rosi said that the right-wing parties were unable set up a political programme that is economically viable. “So they seek to catalyse local discontent caused by work and retirement insecurity and unloaded it [onto] immigrants.”
Since 2015 when the European Union decided to close doors to refugees, Italy has been directly affected by the move as the country was just a few miles off the coast of Libya, a sea junction used by people pushed out by war and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
In 2016 alone, at least 181,000 migrants landed in Italy. And 114,000 more arrived in 2017. Most of them sidestep UN-sanctioned procedures and reside in Italy as illegal immigrants. Now the common perception in Italy is that the rise of illegal immigrants has led to an increase in the annual crime rate. According to independent studies, foreigners committed almost 28 percent of total crimes in Italy in 2016 and 2017.
The political agenda of both the League and of the Brothers of Italy includes the repatriation of all 600,000 illegal immigrants currently living in Italy. This can be achieved by signing treaties with several nations so that all the refugees and illegal immigrants in Italy can be resettled in their native countries. A series of bilateral talks are currently underway between the Italian government and Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco.
Former Foreign Minister Emma Bonino recently said that it would cost over $2.5 billion to resettle refugees and illegal immigrants in their countries of origin.
League leader Salvini often describes immigrants as a threat to the Italian population. Salvini's election slogan "First the Italians," taken from Donald Trump's “America First,” suggests that the centre-left government and the other parties are mostly devoted to fixing migrants’ needs. Salvini does not mince words when he accuses the left of “having blood on their hands” after an 18-year-old girl, Pamela Mastropietro, was allegedly killed by a Nigerian immigrant last January.
Ever since then Mastropietro, a right-wing group has increased their anti-immigrant rhetoric, playing on fears over security concerns.
In the last ten days far-right politicians have mostly spoken about immigration. Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni has mentioned immigration in 75 percent of her tweets, followed by 68 percent for League leader Matteo Salvini, according to YouTrend institute data. In comparison: it was 34 percent for Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi, and for the center-left Matteo Renzi, 25 percent.
All the attention on immigration has also lead to dramatic outcomes. In early February, after the murder of Pamela Mastropietro, Luca Traini, a far-right extremist who stood in the past as a local League candidate, was arrested for a two-hour drive-by shooting spree against immigrants, even targeting the local headquarters of the Democratic Party in the central Italian city of Macerata, injuring six people in total.
Though no party claimed the responsibility for the attack, experts link it to the hateful election campaign of the right-wing groups that has radicalised some Italian youth.