Italian Northern League supporters hold flares as they arrive at political rally led by leader Matteo Salvini, in Milan, Italy, Feb. 24, 2018.
Italian Northern League supporters hold flares as they arrive at political rally led by leader Matteo Salvini, in Milan, Italy, Feb. 24, 2018.

ROME - Italians are preparing to cast their ballots on Sunday in a general election observers say has a highly unpredictable outcome. In a country where frustrations are running high over unprecedented levels of migrant arrivals, anti-establishment parties are thriving. A large number of Italians are still undecided over how they will vote and this time they will be casting their ballots with a new electoral system many do not even understand.

One major issue has dominated the Italian electoral campaign: immigration. The debate ahead of Sunday’s elections, the first national vote since 2013, has highlighted growing racial tensions. More than 600,000 people have arrived in this country from North Africa in the past five years and there has been growing discontent among the population over how the government has been dealing with the migrant emergency.

Right-wing parties, including the League and its leader Matteo Salvini, have advocated mass expulsions and this has led to concerns among the migrants that have made it to Italy, some facing horrific hardships along the way. Mohammed Tijawi, a 17-year-old from Ghana, is terrified that he may have to go back to a land that has nothing to offer him. “They are saying that after the election they will take us back to our country, so we are begging the Italian government to help us,” he said.

The horrific killing and dismemberment of an Italian woman at the hands of Nigerians in the town of Macerata last month has the African community in Italy extremely concerned with what will occur next.

Police clash with demonstrators during an anti-fas
Police clash with demonstrators during an anti-fascist and anti-racist march to protest against a League (Lega) far-right party general election campaign rally in Milan, Italy, Feb. 24, 2018.

Alfie Nze, a Nigerian film-maker who has lived in Milan for many years, says the incident has spread a sense of collective guilt among migrants.

“The foreigner community, especially the Africans that I know of, you have this feeling like you’re hoping from day to day that nothing, no crime is committed in Italy in this period by an African,” he said.

Nze believes there is a growing sense of paranoia among Italians, fed by a political class that is using the immigration issue as a useful distraction. Italians, he says, are focusing on the number of migrant arrivals instead of the real problems that need urgent attention in this country, like the lack of jobs for young people and an economy that has shown some signs of recovery, but very slowly. Nze adds that never has he felt this unsafe as a black man in Italy.

“You really have the feeling that here you have to watch your back, while you move [through] the streets of Italy today and sometimes personally I avoid to go to events where I know I have to come home at night.  I’m alone, you know, and that has never happened in over 20 years of living in Italy.”

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is banned from running for office, has emerged as an unlikely kingmaker showing a united front of his Forza Italia party with the League and the nationalist Brothers of Italy party. Berlusconi recently said that undocumented migrants in Italy are all “ready to commit crimes,” creating a “social bomb about to explode.”

People take part in an anti-fascist march called b
People take part in an anti-fascist march called by Italian left-wing parties and union organizations, in central Rome, Italy, Feb. 24, 2018.

Anne Robichaud is an American tour guide, married to an Italian, who has lived in the central region of Umbria for 40 years. She says across the country Italians feel there is no positive aspect that comes with the wave of foreigners arriving in search of a better life.

“There’s this aura that they’re coming in, they’re taking our jobs, they’re dealing with drugs, they’re a threat to the Italians."

She says the Italian situation is not dissimilar to what has been happening in the United States with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the so-called "Dreamers," hundreds of thousands of now grown up children who had been brought into the U.S.  by undocumented parents.

“Salvini, the same thing. He’s almost a repetition of America First, his cry now is Italia first,” said Robichaud, citing President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.

Legitimate concerns have existed for some time in Italy around mismanagement, corruption, and inadequate integration measures. In addition, the failure of other European Union countries to share responsibility with Italy for those arriving has also fueled anti-European sentiment in the run-up to the vote. Observers say that with the existing political fragmentation, the most likely outcome is that no coherent parliamentary majority will exist after March 4, paving the way to a provisional government and an all too common scenario of instability in Italy.