Power to the People: Left-wing party challenges 'racist logic'

Led by young people eager to help migrants, new Italian movement aims to fill gap in leftist politics as fascism rises.

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    Power to the People leader Viola Carofalo said the left-wing party launched to represent 'young, precarious workers from the south' [Courtesy: Potere al Popolo]
    Power to the People leader Viola Carofalo said the left-wing party launched to represent 'young, precarious workers from the south' [Courtesy: Potere al Popolo]

    Naples, Italy - The migrant helpdesk at this community centre, housed in a former psychiatric hospital, is busy.

    More than 50 people, mostly men and a handful of women with children, are waiting to receive help in navigating Italian bureaucracy.

    Obtaining residency permits or a national insurance card, for instance, is not an easy process for newcomers.

    They are from Ghana, Eritrea and Nigeria, among other countries.

    Some are seeking asylum, others are sleeping rough.

    The centre, referred to by activists as "the OPG" - an acronym for the Judicial Psychiatric Hospital, offers recreational courses, a theatre, gym, cultural and youth events, a medical clinic, as well as migrant and labour helpdesks. Their activities rely on volunteers, donations, and crowdfunding campaigns. 

    The problem is with the main political parties that, from the right to the centre-left, have been exploiting the logic of a war among the poor, a racist logic. Power to the People was born partly as a response to that.

    Viola Carofalo, Power to the People leader

    Three years ago, members of the Je So' Pazzo collective occupied this building, which sits in a working-class neighbourhood on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Naples.

    Migrants and refugees wait to be seen by the helpdesk [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    The collective took its name, which means "I am crazy", from a well-known Neapolitan singer.

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    Last December, when they felt genuinely left-wing politics in Italy were dead, the I Am Crazy activists formed a new political party - Potere al Popolo, or Power to the People.

    They now hope to clear the three percent threshold needed to gain seats in the Italian national election on March 4.

    "We started because we couldn't find anyone to represent us as young people, precarious workers, people from the South," says Viola Carofalo, Power to the People's leader.

    Carofalo, a 37-year-old university researcher on a temporary contract, has become the face of the movement, appearing at rallies and on TV programmes.

    The party aims to cancel the current centre-left government's labour market liberalisation reforms, stop budget deficit cuts imposed by Brussels, and repeal migration policies they define as racist, while forcing Europe to take more responsibility.

    Consultants and lawyers assist migrants applying for residency permits [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    "Italian politics has been drifting to the right, and I'm not talking about neofascist groups which have always been there," Carofalo tells Al Jazeera. "The problem is with the main political parties that, from the right to the centre-left, have been exploiting the logic of a war among the poor, a racist logic. Power to the People was born partly as a response to that.

    "But also to say that there are values such as equality, redistribution of wealth, social solidarity that are no longer at the centre of the political debate."

    'Rightward drift'

    Opinion polls are forbidden in Italy in the fortnight before the election.

    According to recent projections, none of the parties currently enjoy the 40 percent needed to create a government.

    The latest polls see the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) with the majority of votes, averaging 26.8 percent, which would still not give it enough seats to govern alone.

    Silvio Berlusconi's coalition, which includes the anti-migrant League (previously known as the Northern League) and nationalist Brothers of Italy hovered close to reaching a majority with 38.6 percent, while the centre-left coalition lags behind at 26.1 percent. 

    The neo-fascist CasaPound party is unlikely to enter parliament, polling at less than one percent.

    Support for Power to the People had been growing, with polls giving them between 1.5 and 2.4 percent. Fifty percent under 25 years old say they will not vote in the upcoming election, and the party hopes to seize some of those votes. 

    Rooms at OPG are signposted in three languages [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]


    The issue of migration has dominated the campaign period, with parties on opposite sides of the spectrum clutching on two news events.

    In early February, three Nigerian suspected drug dealers were charged with killing an 18-year-old Italian girl in Pollenza, which is near the central town of Macerata.

    Days later in Macerata, a drive-by shooting by a far-right attacker left six African migrants injured.

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    According to Amnesty International, migrants and refugees - who have been increasingly arriving in Italy - have been the main subjects of hate speech, and Matteo Salvini's League has been responsible for most of it.

    After the Macerata shooting, Berlusconi declared that migrants were a "social bomb" and promised to deport 600,000 if elected.

    In the previous elections, we didn't see the disintegration of the centre-left we are seeing now.

    Donatella della Porta, political science professor

    "What we've seen in a party like [Berlusconi's] Go Italy is a rightward drift in the direction of xenophobic and racist statements, due to a sort of competition within the centre-right with the League, whose racist aspect has grown stronger compared to its ethno-regionalist one," Donatella della Porta, a political science professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, tells Al Jazeera.

    "In addition to that, in previous elections, the League was a minority component, while now they are on an equal footing [with Go Italy]. The other rightward shift is in the Democratic Party, which has lost its centre-left wing."

    "In previous elections, we didn't see the disintegration of the centre-left we are seeing now," Della Porta continues, referring to the 2013 election which saw comedian Beppe Grillo's M5S first emerge as a third force in Italian politics.

    "In those elections, [the M5S] was the party that channelled discontent, including towards austerity policies imposed by the Monti government, supported by both the centre-left and centre-right. But it focused on environmental and ethical issues as opposed to issues of inequality and social justice like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece."

    Pre-election violence

    Carofalo has made several TV appearances in the run-up to the election.

    The increased media interest is partly due to rising tensions between far-right and neofascist movements such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova, and anti-fascist activists who have taken to the streets arguing that Italy's constitution outlaws fascism.

    In an escalation, a leader of the far-right group, Forza Nuova, was recently tied up and beaten on the streets of Palermo, while two Power to the People activists were stabbed and assaulted as they were putting up electoral posters in Perugia, a city in central Italy.

    Artists have decorated the outer walls of the former hospital [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    Back at the OPG centre, helpdesk worker Saverio, a philosophy graduate, listens to the story of an Ivorian opposition supporter who has fled his country.

    Seka, not his real name, claims he is being unjustly expelled from a reception centre that accommodates him and needs a place to stay.

    Malik, a smartly-dressed 29-year-old from Senegal, helps translate from French.

    "I volunteer as a cultural mediator with the migrant desk and the clinic," explains Malik. 

    He has been living in Naples for five years, earning his living as a street seller. "I'm a welder but it's not easy to work. So I'm doing this for now," he says, adding he has been unable to get permanent residency.

    It's been 40 years since the people have had real representation in Italy, and unlike the populist right, by 'people' we mean everyone, not only Italians.

    Saverio, OPG centre volunteer

    In addition to volunteering at the OPG, Saverio also works in a bar.

    His daily shift at the centre leaves him with little time to get involved in the electoral campaign, but he believes Power to the People fills a representation gap in a region where youth unemployment stands at around 50 percent.

    "All you have to do is go and work in a call centre or go through job ads posted online, when you are 28 years old, to realise we need something new," Saverio says. 

    Employees, he says, are usually required to be flexible to the point of being exploited, with no or few guarantees. A recent job posting, for instance, offered 700 euros ($855) for a 50-hour week.

    "It's been 40 years since the people have had real representation in Italy," Saverio argues, "and unlike the populist right, by 'people' we mean everyone, not only Italians."

    From left: Volunteers Silvia, Saverio and Malik pictured at the OPG [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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