MACERATA, Italy – In late July, Alika Ogorchukwu, a 39-year-old Nigerian father and street vendor, was beaten to death by a white Italian man in the streets of the coastal town of Civitanova Marche.
Onlookers did not physically intervene to stop the violence, one filmed the incident which was later shared online and sparked outrage.
Omar Fadera, an immigrant from Gambia who knew Ogorchukwu, said that just ahead of Italy’s elections, racism is on the rise in the country.
“It’s getting worse,” Fadera said about racism in Italy. “Before, it's not like this. But after [politicians] start to say this kind of things, things start to change.”
Ogorchukwu’s killing has become emblematic of the extreme racism and discrimination that immigrants in Italy face as the country lurches to the political right.
And on Sunday, Italians could elect the first-ever Prime Minister with ties to Italy’s fascist past.
Giorgia Meloni – who would also be Italy’s first female Prime Minister – vehemently denies that she and her party, the Brothers of Italy, Fratelli d'Italia, are fascists. In August, the 45-year-old released a video where she said in English, French and Spanish, that “fascism is history,” a line that can become increasingly heard parroted by her supporters in the run-up to the elections on the 25th of September.
But this doesn’t make a difference to immigrants and ethnic minority people in Italy, many of whom are afraid.
“If it is white to white, I don't think they will be there making a video until he beat him to death,” Fadera said. “This happens to Black people like this, but not white people.”
Fadera lives in the city of Macerata, not far from where Ogorchukwu lived, and died. In 2018, Fadera almost suffered a similar fate when he was one of six Black men who were targets of a mass shooting by a white supremacist.
The attacker – who was later arrested while standing in front of the Mussolini-era war memorial, draped in an Italian flag and making a fascist salute – had previously run for parliament as a candidate for right-wing politician Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, or Lega Nord, the predecessor to Salvini’s new party, Lega.
“You are not safe and you are not valued,” Fadera said about being Black in Italy today. “You're just like a dog.
Meloni began her political careeer in the Italian Social Movement, a party founded by fascist allies of Benito Mussolini (and Nazi collaborators) not long after the dictator’s killing by Italian partisans in the final days of WWII. Today her party, which has seen a meteoric rise in popularity since it was founded 10 years ago, is a direct descendent of that now-dissolved party, even sharing the same logo and headquarters.
Her supporters, however, don’t see the connection as a problem.
“The extreme right ended with fascism, with the end of the war, so I don’t think Meloni is extreme,” said Giuseppe Carbonaro, a 23-year-old engineer who drove an hour to hear Meloni speak at an election rally.
Carbonaro comes from the town of Sansepolcro in Italy’s picturesque Tuscany region, which has traditionally voted for left of centre parties, but parts of it are now expected to flip to Meloni in this election.
“I think that Italy should make policies for Italians: to help families, to repopulate Italy, and to encourage births,” said Carbonaro, as we strolled the centuries-old alleyways in which he grew up.
Italy, like other countries in southern Europe, has struggled to regain its footing in the years since the 2008 financial crisis. While its economy has mostly rebounded, youth unemployment still hovers around 24 percent, one of the highest rates in the EU. And many young people from towns like Sansepolcro move abroad in search of opportunities, a haemorrhage that Carbonaro wants to stop.
“A solid and strong policy is needed to restart Italy now, a kind of policy that encourages young people to remain in Italy,” said Carbonaro. “I think that Giorgia Meloni can give a future to us young people.”
It’s Meloni’s version of “Make Italy Great Again,” that is lining people up behind her campaign. But identifying the policies she’s in favour of to do that, is harder than identifying the issues she’s against.
Like others on the European far-right, Meloni has waged a boisterous campaign against “woke” culture, globalism, the “LGBTQ lobby”, and immigration in her attempt to recreate a conservative and nationalist Italian identity.
To increase her chances of victory, she’s partnered with Salvini, who was Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister between 2018-2019, and who has been one of the most vocal critics demonising refugees, migrants and other ethnic minority groups in recent years.
“We need a mass cleansing, street by street, piazza by piazza, neighbourhood by neighbourhood,” Salvini said in 2018 about Italy’s minority Roma community. He’s also called immigrants “dangerous” for Italy.
For many in Italy, it’s the real world consequences of the far-right’s policies and rhetoric that has them more worried than whatever ties there may be to the past.
“There is no risk of ever again seeing the regime of Benito Mussolini,” said Daniela Preziosa, a political analyst with Domani newspaper. “It would be ridiculous to think so. But authoritarianism can have different faces.”
In an attempt to clean up her image, Meloni has said her style of conservatism resembles that of Republicans in the US, or the UK’s Conservative Party.
But many see her style as more reminiscent of autocratic leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, or Donald Trump of the US – populists she has compared herself with. And that’s what is causing alarm.
“The question is [Meloni’s] authoritarian impulse that can evolve in this country,” said Preziosa, adding that without a strong opposition from the left, it will be harder to block her in government.
“That division [of the left] has always created advantages for their right-wing opponents. This situation is unique, though, in that this right-wing coalition that could win and is ahead in the polls is especially radical.”
The only chance to stop Meloni and the Brothers of Italy will come from the centre-left Democratic Party (DP). Despite polling nearly as well as the Brothers, they’re not expected to be able to form a viable coalition after the election.
Leading the DP is Enrico Letta, the former Prime Minister and dean of Paris’ elite Sciences Po university, has said he wants to maintain the programme of Mario Draghi, the former banker turned PM who helped steer Italy through the pandemic before his government collapsed.
After a rally in the heart of Rome, from behind a podium Letta addressed supporters, a sharp contrast to Meloni who moved around the stage.
“Conservatism in Italy won’t win, that’s not our Italy. Democracy, progress, progressivism, Europeanism, and ecologism: that’s what’s going to change the story of our country,” he said.
As he came off stage and flanked by security and his entourage, Letta spoke to VICE World News.
“Of course, the past also plays a role,” he said of Meloni. “But I'm mostly worried about what they want to do today.”
“Because if they want to change the… destiny of Italy, putting Italy [on the side of] Orbán or with Putin, Bolsonaro, Trump, it is not my Italy. My Italy's in a completely different side of history.”