How the murder of a young woman turned Italy’s elections into a referendum on immigration

An activist wearing a mask of Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi poses during a tour, the day after Italy’s parliamentary elections, in Rome, March 5, 2018.

Max Rossi/Reuters

Little more than a month ago, no one had heard of Macerata. Then the murder of Pamela Mastropietro thrust the small town in central Italy onto the national stage, and the whole course of a pivotal national election was altered.

The lead suspect for the murder of 18-year-old Mastropietro happened to be Nigerian. On Feb. 3, days after the suspect’s arrest, six Africans were gunned down in Macerata by Luca Traini, said to be acting in response to Mastropietro’s death. He was draped in the Italian flag and giving the fascist salute when police arrested him, and a copy of “Mein Kampf” was subsequently found in his home. Traini had previously been a political candidate for the far-right party League, which after Sunday’s election could end up in government alongside Forza Italia, the party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

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Traini’s fascist terrorist attack in Macerata fueled one of the nastiest campaigns Italians can remember, with right-wing politicians attempting to outshout each other over the issue of immigration. Immigration might always have ended up being the hot topic, of course.

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Italy has received around 600,000 arrivals by sea since 2014, a phenomenon that has been seized upon by the hard-right. Fringe groups such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova have demonstrated and given hate-filled speeches, as well as smoke bombing the newspaper, la Repubblica, and carrying out attacks against foreigners. In January, League’s leader Matteo Salvini called for the deportation of more than half a million undocumented immigrants and made Trump-esque “Italy first” speeches.


Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini casts his vote at a polling station

Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini casts his vote at a polling station in Milan, March 4, 2018.

Stefano Rellandinia/Reuters

Yet before the violence in Macerata, Salvini’s rhetoric seemed to be gaining little traction. “We thought [immigration] wasn’t going to be one of the major issues in the election,” says Sabika Shah Povia, an Italian Pakistani journalist and activist on migrant issues. “Macerata brought it up to the headlines.”

Until recently, the political mainstream on both the center-right and left had found it expedient to ignore the immigration issue. That’s because the government under incumbent Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, leader of the center-left Democratic party, managed to drastically reduce arrivals last year by signing controversial bilateral agreements with countries of origin. How did the Macerata murder and subsequent shooting spree push immigration to the top of the agenda again?

Povia recalls another recent case in which the body of a murdered young woman was found in the countryside: “It was discussed as a crime, which it was; the murderer was rightly condemned. And that’s it,” she says. “A few months later, a similar case happens, but this time it’s a white girl dead and a black guy that probably killed her, and suddenly the immigration debate is bounced back into the headlines. And people start to manipulate the story to get votes.”

Populist and far-right politicians made incendiary posts about the murder on their websites and Facebook pages, linking it to immigration. “Then the story went viral on social media,” says Povia, at which point, the mainstream media felt obliged to run the story, too. Before long, the case was being discussed on special edition talk shows and discussion panels on television and radio.

Step-by-step, the blame for Mastropietro’s murder spiraled away from a lone suspect. “It went from one black guy to all Nigerians. And then, finally, the blame was put on all foreigners,” says Povia.

In the space of a few days, Italy was talking about immigration again.

Soon after the Macerata shooting spree, Berlusconi doubled down on Salvini’s pledge to deport up to 600,000 undocumented immigrants. Although the 81-year-old cannot be prime minister again due to a conviction for tax fraud, he fancied himself as kingmaker after allying his party with League and the far-right Brothers of Italy. Together, the three parties hold the largest share of the vote after yesterday’s election. Now, Berlusconi’s political comeback has been eclipsed by Salvini’s League, which came second in the election behind the populist Five Star Movement, which is against coalitions. But both he and Berlusconi have greatly benefited from harnessing the furor over Macerata.