Protests after pro-Migrant Mayor arrested in Italy

In a guest report, Labour activist Joseph Lee argues that the failings of the Democratic party in Italy have emboldened the Right to arrest the democratically elected Mayor of Calabria, but that the protest movement against his arrest should give supporters hope. 

Demonstrations of solidarity have taken place across Italy in support of Mimmo Lucano the mayor of a small town in Calabria. Lucano was arrested last week and is accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, but many see this as a politically motivated act against a man who has embraced migrants in a positive and progressive model of integration.


The authorities claim the mayor of 14 years was involved in facilitating sham marriages. Lucano denies the charges and says he has always acted in accordance with the law and Italy’s constitution, which was drawn up after the fall of fascism.

The arrest follows the ascension of Matteo Salvini to the position of Interior Minister on the back of a strong performance by his right-wing party, the League, in elections earlier this year. Salvini’s decision to close Italian ports to migrant boats has caused distressing and tragic consequences, and in recent months Italy has experienced a spate of violent attacks against migrants.

The failure of the main centre-left party – the Democratic Party - is by no means a small factor in the development of the hostile environment for migrants in Italy. The party has its own strongman Marco Minniti who served as Interior Minister and was criticised for his hard-line approach to immigration. It was under him that the town of Riace had its funding temporarily blocked.

The Five Star Movement has also developed an anti-immigrant policy stance which is one of the reasons why so much of the League’s policy agenda is being pursued in an otherwise unlikely alliance between the two governing parties. The Democratic Party’s domestic failures opened the way to the success of both the League and Five Star Movement. The Democratic Party is closely associated with the establishment and was punished by a disenchanted electorate seeking a change to business-as-usual.

Part of the Five Star Movement’s appeal is their economic populism which includes a citizen’s income as a strategy to combat poverty and precarity. They are particularly popular in the South where they won a convincing majority of votes. The Democratic Party meanwhile has pursued a neo-liberal policy agenda including labour market liberalisation in a country where low pay, joblessness and precarious employment is the reality for millions.

Resistance to the anti-migrant policies of the Italian government has largely been organised by those outside of parliament and the Democratic Party. Few parliamentarians are giving their voice to the cause of migrants while writers, and the many ‘social centres’ in Italy have been crucial to the organisation and impact of the demonstrations now taking place. ‘Social centres’ are a major part of the left in many cities and as well as being a hub for activists they often provide crucial services to local communities, including migrants.

It seems doubtful that there is any real hope of the Democratic Party becoming a force capable of dealing with the rise of anti-migrant sentiment. The membership is predominantly behind the Party’s leadership which is hostile to the left, and at a recent meeting of the Democratic Party the faithful crowds outside chanted for unity. Splits and party in-fighting have hurt the party’s image, but unity alone will be insufficient to reverse the party’s fortunes or change the policy direction of the party towards immigration.

For many the arrest of an elected politician is a worrying reminder of Italy’s fascist past which has never been far from the surface. However, Italy also has another political tradition. When demonstrators gathered outside the mayor’s home they sang Bella Ciao, a famous partisan song. Whatever happens to Mimmo Lucano the episode has underlined the urgency to develop a broad movement that is not only willing to speak more emphatically in favour of migrants but also to engage with the disillusioned who are being pushed towards divisive and deeply troubling politics.

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