Racist shooting adds sinister twist to Italy’s bleak election campaign
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Saturday’s shooting spree by a far-right extremist in the town of Macerata has pushed Italy’s poisonous immigration debate to the forefront of a lacklustre election campaign, just one month ahead of the March 4 polls.
A mutilated teenager, a racist gun rampage, a fascist salute draped in the Italian tricolour, and a vicious row between politicians scavenging for votes: terror cast a sinister shadow on Italy’s election campaign at the weekend, though not in the shape other European countries have come to dread.
Luca Traini, a 28-year-old with no criminal record, remained in jail on Monday as police investigated him on multiple counts of attempted murder, with the aggravating circumstance of “racial hatred”, for the two-hour drive-by shooting spree that injured five men and one woman – all of them African – in the sleepy town of 43,000, nestled in the craggy hills of Italy’s central Marche region.
After the rampage, Traini got out of his car, made a fascist salute with an Italian flag wrapped around his shoulders, and shouted "Italy for Italians", among other slogans. Police who raided his mother's home found far-right literature, including a copy of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and a book by Benito Mussolini, along with a flag bearing a Celtic cross, a symbol frequently used by white supremacists.
Interior Minister Marco Minniti said the attack was part of a culture "of right-wing extremism with clear reference to fascism and Nazism". He said the "criminal act" was prompted by "racial hatred" and had been prepared in advance, noting that the sole link between the victims, who hailed from Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia and Mali, was "the colour of their skin".
Damagingly for the Northern League, a prominent hard-right party, it soon emerged that Traini had stood as one of its candidates in local elections last year – reportedly winning zero votes. But far from sounding a cautious note after the shootings, the League’s firebrand leader Matteo Salvini doubled down on his trademark anti-migrant rhetoric, blaming the “migrant invasion” supposedly ordained by Italy’s centre-left government and its European peers for triggering a “social conflict”.
On Sunday, Colonel Michele Roberti, the Carabinieri commander in Macerata, told Italian media that Traini demonstrated no remorse for the two-hour rampage. "It's likely that he carried out this crazy gesture as a sort of retaliation, a sort of vendetta," Roberti added, referring to the gruesome slaying of an 18-year-old Italian woman a few days earlier, for which a Nigerian male has been detained.
Pamela Mastropietro’s dismembered body was found in two suitcases days after she walked away from a drug rehab centre. Police said her bloodstained clothes, a receipt from a pharmacy where she bought a syringe, and knives believed to have been used for the crime were found in the 29-year-old suspect's Macerata apartment.
Investigators have ruled out any personal connection between Traini and the murdered woman. But his decision to drive past the home of her alleged attacker, and fire gunshots at the nearby offices of the ruling Democratic Party, appeared consistent with the vendetta theme – seemingly conflating the young woman’s murder with the political party that, in the gunman’s mind, was ultimately to blame.
In the days following Mastropietro’s death, the League’s Salvini had sought to capitalise on her murder, claiming the Democratic Party and the left in general had “blood on their hands”. Some on the left have since hit back with similar vehemence, accusing Salvini’s inflammatory rhetoric of triggering the racist shooting in Macerata.
On Sunday, Italian President Sergio Mattarella urged all parties to end the mudslinging. The prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, called for unity among Italians, saying: "Hate and violence will not divide us." But their appeals are likely to fall on deaf ears in the final stretch of a campaign that has been singularly lacking in both civility and policy.
Expelling, in words
Anti-migrant sentiment is a hot button issue in Italy, long a favoured landing point on Europe's southern coastline for migrants and refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. A controversial deal between the EU and Libya helped reduce the number of crossings last year, but local authorities are struggling to cope with the estimated 600,000 illegal migrants already on Italian soil.
Like other European countries, Italy has been frustrated in its attempts to expel those whose residency permits have expired or whose asylum applications have been rejected. Many fall off the authorities’ radar and – like the suspect in Mastropietro’s case – drift into drug trafficking or other criminal activities.
Salvini is pledging to deport 150,000 migrants in his first year in office if his party wins the election. In the wake of the Macerata shooting, his main coalition partner, the resurgent Silvio Berlusconi, promised to “gradually” repatriate all of the 600,000 illegal migrants now in Italy, describing immigration as a “social bomb ready to explode”. Neither has explained how they plan to do this.
According to opinion polls, an unwieldy right-wing alliance between Salvini, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) and the post-fascist Fratelli d'Italia (Italian Brothers) will scoop the largest share of votes on March 4, falling just short of an overall majority in parliament. The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which also espouses a hard line on immigration, is expected to be the largest single party.
Shockingly for Italy, a country accustomed to high turnouts, the same polls suggest the abstention rate could surge to above 30 percent, reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with a campaign that analysts have described as the bleakest in decades.