Mainstream parties and the politics of immigration in Italy: A structural advantage for the right or a missed opportunity for the left?


The structure of the Italian party system pushes the mainstream right and left to adopt different strategies on immigration in spite of a certain ideological and definite policy convergence. First, in a context of bipolar competition, the mainstream right prefers to cooperate, rather than compete, with the anti-immigrant radical right. Second, while the mainstream left dominates the centre-left coalition, the mainstream right has found itself subject to and torn by the populist tendencies of the centre-right coalition leader Silvio Berlusconi. The analysis shows that the mainstream left has endorsed concerns over security and border control, while remaining open to the social, cultural and (to a lesser extent) political integration of immigrants. In contrast, the mainstream right has appeared increasingly split between a component ‘contaminated’ by Berlusconi, which makes some concessions to the radical right; and a moderate component, which is more sensitive to liberal ideas and/or to the solidaristic remarks of the Catholic Church. The reality of the Italian welfare system and labour market would appear to create more favourable conditions for the ideological approach of the mainstream left. However, the mainstream right has benefited from its alliance with the radical right as it has constantly owned the immigration issue.

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  1. 1.

    Official data on estimated undocumented immigrants are not available. Figures provided by organizations working in the immigration sector diverge considerably (IDOS, 2005, p. 11), and estimations become quickly outdated as new regularizations are implemented.

  2. 2.

    By 2011, the number of ‘foreigners’ who were born and living in Italy was estimated at 7 36 000 (citing data from Caritas and Migrantes, 2012, p. 117).

  3. 3.

    The question was not included in previous election studies, nor repeated in following ones.

  4. 4.

    According to a Report on Income of Families with Foreigners by the national statistical institution ISTAT, two-thirds of foreign residents in Italy immigrated for work purposes; immigrants are more active than Italians in the job market in all age classes; and 90.6 per cent of net income of foreign families comes from work, compared to 63.8 per cent for Italian families (ISTAT, 2011).

  5. 5.

    Cohrane (2011) has shown how the lack of coherence in right parties’ ideological positioning, vis-a-vis leftist parties, is a general trend and does not necessarily represent a major electoral disadvantage, as it reflects an equally fragmented positioning of rightist voters.

  6. 6.

    In particular, the possible concession of voting rights for immigrants.

  7. 7.

    The fact that in the same period the centre-left was able to push through a different constitutional reform (the so called ‘federalist reform’), against outright centre-right opposition, appears to suggest that the hesitation of the government forces was mainly due to calculations concerning short-term electoral costs, rather than to the institutional hurdles.


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Massetti, E. Mainstream parties and the politics of immigration in Italy: A structural advantage for the right or a missed opportunity for the left?. Acta Polit 50, 486–505 (2015).

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  • immigration politics
  • mainstream parties
  • party strategy
  • left and right
  • Italian politics