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Pisa’s Square of Miracles with cathedral and Leaning Tower. Franco Origlia/Getty Images hide caption
Franco Origlia/Getty Images
The Italian region of Tuscany is not known just for its fine wines, extra-virgin olive oil and Renaissance masterpieces. It’s also the birthplace of the Italian Communist Party, which was founded in 1921, and has been a bastion of left-wing governance for decades.
But in the last three years, Tuscany has experienced political upheaval as the hard-right, anti-immigrant League party has won elections in many towns, marking the first losses for the left in Tuscany in more than seven decades.
Pisa is one of those towns. It’s home to three universities that have long attracted students from all over the world — some of whom settled in the Tuscan city. In its Square of Miracles, the cathedral, baptistry and iconic Leaning Tower were built more than 1,000 years ago in a blend of Byzantine and Islamic styles, symbolizing the powerful maritime republic’s trade links across the Mediterranean.
Today, Pisa is home to more than 90,000 people, with a Muslim community of 2,000. Three years ago, the center-left administration provisionally approved a request to build a mosque. But after the League won power last year, the new mayor vetoed the mosque’s construction, fulfilling a campaign promise.
Mohammad Khalil, an Italian citizen of Palestinian origin who came to Italy 39 years ago to study engineering, is president of Pisa’s Muslim community.
“I guess fear-mongering works,” says Khalil. “The League keeps saying ‘Italians first,’ but many of us are also Italian citizens and just as concerned about security as everyone else is.”
In Cascina, the League headquarters features a poster showing Mayor Susanna Ceccardi, who also recently won a seat in the European Parliament in Brussels. Sylvia Poggioli/NPR hide caption
Repeated requests by NPR for interviews with Pisa’s Mayor Michele Conti or members of his administration were refused.
But Davide Cinini, a former leftist, is willing to explain why he embraced the hard-right League. He accuses the center-left Democratic Party — in power at the national level for five years until last June — of following European Union orders imposing austerity measures that, he says, led to increased economic stagnation and high unemployment.
“When a leftist party promotes policies that are not leftist, are against the working class, I’m not the one who has changed,” he says. “It’s what’s happening around me that has changed.”
Democratic Party activist Michele Ceraolo acknowledges the left failed to grasp Italians’ economic anxieties after the 2008 financial crisis. But, he says, that’s not the only reason why entrenched political affiliations have been swept away in Italy’s leftist-leaning “red belt.”
“The right at the moment has a strong storytelling, the left has none,” he says. “The right knows how to talk to the heart of the people: ‘I know that you are insecure, you have fear.’ “
One place in Tuscany where migrants are still welcomed is San Miniato, a medieval town halfway between Pisa and Florence, perched on sloping hills dotted with olive groves. Many migrants have found jobs in local tanneries that produce Tuscany’s luxury leather goods — jobs that many Italians don’t want. Sylvia Poggioli/NPR hide caption
That fear often centers around the more than 600,000 migrants who arrived in Italy in the last five years.
The League’s surge in local and national elections followed that migration surge. Since party leader Matteo Salvini became Italy’s deputy prime minister last year, his popularity has soared. He has ordered the bulldozing of camps where Roma families lived, sharply curtailed funds for refugee shelters and shut down Italy’s ports to migrant rescue ships.
Anti-migrant sentiment is spreading. Ten miles from Pisa, the town of Cascina, once renowned for its household furniture workshops, has seen its local industry all but wiped out by global competition and the financial crisis. Cascina is where the League won its first breakthrough in Tuscany in 2016, ousting the left after 71 years in power.
After that election, a local parish priest, the Rev. Elvis Ragusa, was sharply criticized by a League councilor for inviting asylum seekers living in a nearby camp for free breakfasts before Sunday Mass. Ragusa says some migrants asked for Bibles and crosses.
When a local newspaper reported this, “The councilor of the League talked against me because I am a priest that was giving a Bible and crosses to Christians,” he says. “And that is crazy.”
The League administration ordered the camp shut down. The asylum seekers were sent to other parts of Italy.
One place in Tuscany where migrants are still welcomed is San Miniato, a medieval town halfway between Pisa and Florence, perched on sloping hills dotted with olive groves.
A cooperative called La Pietra d’Angolo, “Cornerstone,” provides lodging and assistance for asylum seekers and has hosted some 250 refugees over the last four years. Director Michela de Vita says there’s never been any violence or tension with area residents. Many migrants have found jobs in local tanneries that produce Tuscany’s luxury leather goods — tough jobs that, she says, many Italians don’t want.
San Miniato voters recently re-elected the center-left administration, but de Vita acknowledges that the Democratic Party has lived too long on its past successes.
“Party leaders have lost contact with their electorate,” she says. “They don’t go out and talk to people. They say, ‘We’re strong, we’ll keep winning,’ but that’s how you end up losing.”
De Vita says the right-wing national government’s recent drastic cuts in funding for migrants have forced organizations like hers to lay off staff and eliminate Italian language classes that are crucial tools for integration.
She worries more oppressive government policies will lead to friction in San Miniato between migrants and residents and further electoral victories for the League.
A half-hour’s drive north is the town of Montecatini, whose thermal springs were immortalized by Federico Fellini in his 1963 film 8½. For decades, Montecatini was a bastion of the left. There’s a festive mood at a spa where men and women sip prosecco as they celebrate the League’s victory in municipal elections last May.
Walls at the spa are covered with posters proclaiming “Italy first” and hailing Salvini — “il Capitano” — as national savior.
Andrea Picchielli, a local League leader and member of its Foreign Relations Department, accuses the Democratic Party of doing nothing to stop the migrant influx.
“Sometimes they call us racist,” he says. “We are not racist at all. We want to help people who have really the right to stay here. But not everybody.”
Maria Ardagna, an ardent Salvini fan, believes in the “great replacement” conspiracy, a racist view with a long history. Ardagna believes there is a plot to replace white Europeans with black migrants. She believes the plotters are big names in international finance: “Soros, Rockefeller, Rothschild.”
Like many other League voters, Ardagna is not a fan of Pope Francis, who recently warned that fear-mongers have made people “intolerant and, perhaps without realizing it, racist.”
“He does un-Christian things,” Ardagna says. “When he travels and finds families in need, he doesn’t bring Christians back to Rome, he brings Muslims. He’s not a pope — for us, he’s the anti-Christ.”
The victory party ends with a speech by a rising star, 32-year-old Susanna Ceccardi, elected as the League’s first mayor in Tuscany in 2016, when she defeated the leftist candidate in Cascina. In one of her first moves, she scrapped government-funded projects to help migrants integrate in favor of hiring private guards as night-time sentinels.
She is greeted with applause as she tells the crowd she’s sick and tired of the left accusing the League of being heartless.
“I strongly believe that bulldozing Roma camps and curbing illegal immigration by shutting down ports, as Salvini has done, are great humanitarian acts,” she declares.
In May, Ceccardi won a seat for the League in the European Parliament in Brussels. Next year, she plans to run for governor of the entire region of Tuscany.
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