Italy turns on immigrants in election run-up

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The Italian government was battling yesterday to avoid being derailed by an acrimonious row over immigration, which has led to a flurry of racial insults and provocations exploited by various political parties as they jostle for position ahead of a much anticipated general election campaign.

At the insistence of the Northern League, volatile champion of northern Italy's insular middle classes, the government spent most of the week drawing up an emergency decree establishing rules on the treatment of illegal immigrants, to ensure in turn that the Northern League would lend its support to the 1996 budget.

So explosive has the issue proved, however, that when the decree came before cabinet on Thursday it took all day to approve. The Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, then took the unprecedented decision not to publish the decree's contents until it had been signed by the head of state, indicating that the argument could help precipitate the dissolution of parliament.

In less heated circumstances, the immigration issue would never have distracted Mr Dini and his non-political government from their main task: pushing the budget through parliament and establishing a few much-needed rules on the conduct of elections before handing in their resignation.

But the Northern League decided it wanted to make its voice heard before any election campaign, and insisted on a series of extreme anti-immigration measures to satisfy those of its supporters who blame the growing numbers of foreigners in Italy for crime and unemployment.

First it threatened to withdraw support for the budget, then it made noises about walking out of the centre-left coalition dominated by the former communist PDS if the immigration issue was not addressed immediately. Both Mr Dini and the PDS leader, Massimo D'Alema, knew the League's votes were too precious to lose, so they capitulated.

Centrists have accused the Northern League of blackmail, and the Vatican denounced the arrogance and "police-state methods" of certain politicians.

The language of the debate has been immoderate. Erminio Boso, a Northern League senator, said immigrants should have their toe-prints taken by the police "because that's the only way to identify their tribal origin", and urged the use of rubber bullets to keep them in line.

He added that illegal immigrants should be flown home in military aircraft and dropped out with parachutes to save the expense of landing the planes. "Immigrants on civilian airlines might rape the hostesses ... and airline captains would refuse to take them because they stink," the senator went on.

Such sentiments had their effect. The far-right National Alliance, successor to the neo-Fascist party, cheered from the sidelines because Mr Boso was echoing their call for the expulsion of all illegal immigrants.

The police, picking up on the political cue, launched raids to round up immigrants in the suburban tenements where many of the poorest live.

The PDS, which sells itself as a mainstream left-wing party, negotiated with the Northern League to moderate some of its more extreme proposals. On Tuesday the two parties presented a joint programme to make it easier to expel suspected criminals but also to enable working immigrants to regularise their situation and bring their families to Italy.

The government decree is believed to have taken a moderate line, but expulsions on their own are no answer since they will be hard to put into practice. In the meantime, the rhetoric of Mr Boso is acquiring a frightening degree of respectability.