RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Italians are going to the polls today to elect a new Parliament. This follows one of the nastiest and most violent political campaigns in decades. Italy's European partners are anxiously waiting for the result, fearful that a possible success of populist parties would have far-reaching, negative impacts on the European Union. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome. Good morning.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, as I've just said, it was a very acrimonious political campaign. What is the root of all this anger?
POGGIOLI: Well, the campaign has been dominated by fear mongering over the arrival of more than 600,000 mostly African migrants in the last four years. The pivotal moment came in early February when a right-wing extremist in the town of Macerata shot and wounded six African migrants. He was arrested and claimed he acted in revenge for the murder of an 18-year-old Italian woman whose suspected killers are two Nigerians. That incident inspired several right-wing politicians to use racist language that had not been heard in decades, like calls for the mass deportation of migrants and blaming the outgoing center-left government for the influx of asylum-seekers, saying it has blood on its hands. After that, several left-wing activists were beaten up while putting up posters. A politician for a fascist party was beaten up on the street. And there have been clashes between anti-fascists and fascists in many cities.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, when you talk about fascists, one would think that that movement and the fascism of Mussolini - its ideas might have been buried a long time ago in Italy.
POGGIOLI: Yeah, well, theoretically, in 1945 when the dictatorship fell. But, you know, Italy was never made to come to terms with its fascist past. There were no Nuremberg trials. And many fascist bigwigs just blended back into society. Italy had a large communist movement that had been the backbone of the partisan battle against fascism. So with the start of the Cold War, the allies feared communists would take over and did not push for a defascistization (ph) of society.
So today, there are several openly fascist parties running in this election. They probably won't overcome the 3-percent threshold to get into Parliament. But they're very visible. They were very loud. And they've, you know, reawakened the political ghosts of the past. They've emboldened other populist parties to use language and make proposals that, until recently, mainstream politics would have really considered unacceptable.
MONTAGNE: What happened to the moderates, though? I mean, why hasn't the outgoing ruling party, which is center-left, been able to showcase some real achievements that it's had?
POGGIOLI: Well, some of their problems - they're doing very badly in the polls - is due to the personality of the Democratic Party leader, Matteo Renzi. He has a very sharp Tuscan wit, which, to non-Tuscans, makes him sound like an obnoxious smart aleck. And he's deeply disliked within his own party. Several members of the leftist old guard accused Renzi of being too centrist. They broke away, and that strongly weakened the party.
Under the party leadership, Italy's economy came out of a very devastating recession. And it has grown in the last five years, not as fast as its European partners. But it's done much better. And the party also passed a landmark civil rights legislation with a civil unions law for same-sex couples, despite the strong influence of the Catholic Church in politics. But, you know, the party's push for structural reforms was strongly resisted by both the right and the left. Italians are essentially conservative. They don't like change. But the populists are really pushing a vision of the past. And they're strongly skeptical of the European Union. And if they came to power, that could further destabilize the EU at a time when the bloc is already dealing with Britain's exit and growing authoritarianism in member states like Poland and Hungary.
MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thanks very much.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking to us from Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.