LONDON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- With Italy's general elections scheduled for March 4, issues surrounding migration dominate, with political observers saying the vote could turn on public reaction to a series of gruesome events in the small central Italian town of Macerata.
An anti-immigration backlash swept through Italy following reports that the disembodied body of Pamela Mastropietro, 18, was found Jan. 31 in two suitcases in Macerata days after she left a drug rehabilitation center.
It was not clear whether Mastropietro was killed or died of a drug overdose; however, a Nigerian migrant with a history of drug-dealing was arrested in connection with her death, sparking public anger toward Italy's migration policy.
Three days later, Luca Trani, who stood as a candidate for the far-right Northern League in local elections in Macerata last year, confessed to shooting at Africans in the small town. During a two-hour rampage, Trani injured five men and one woman.
Before his arrest, Trani - with an Italian flag draped over his shoulders - was seen making fascist salutes and shouting far-right slogans, including "Italy for Italians."
More than 600,000 migrants, mostly from Africa, have reached Italian shores in the past four years, sparking a backlash that fueled the rise of Italy's center and far-right.
Most of the migrants arrived by boat from North Africa, particularly Libya. An agreement signed one year ago between Italy and Libya involved Rome pledging to help the Libyan Coast Guard intercept boats and return migrants to the North African country, greatly reducing the influx. However, migrants who remained in Italy found themselves at the center of a political storm, particularly given fears over Italy's economy with reduced growth and a $2.8 trillion debt, which represents 135 percent of the country's GDP.
The Northern League, along with the far-right Brothers of Italy, is part of a right-wing coalition that also includes former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party. The coalition is banking strongly on an anti-migrant policy paying dividends at the March 4 polls.
Rather than explicitly condemning Trani's actions and moving away from promoting anti-immigrant discourse following the Macerata shootings, the Northern League doubled down on its anti-migrant strategy.
"If anyone is to blame, it is the government that has allowed hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants to come here without any limits," Northern League Federal Secretary Matteo Salvini told Italy's La Stampa newspaper.
He pledged to deport 150,000 migrants in his first year in office, if the party wins the election.
Berlusconi said the coalition would "gradually" repatriate all 600,000 illegal migrants from Italy.
Speaking during a television interview, the 81-year-old former prime minister, who is barred from holding office in the country due to tax fraud convictions, described illegal immigrants in Italy as "living off handouts and crime" and a "social bomb ready to explode."
"We consider it to be an absolute priority to regain control over the situation," Berlusconi said.
The polls indicate that the right-wing alliance is poised to secure the largest share of votes, with the ruling center-left Democratic Party, hit by internal rifts and a banking scandal, expected only to come third.
An early February poll by EMG saw the Democratic Party at 23 percentage points, behind the Five Star Movement at 27 percent. Forza Italia was listed at 16 percent and the Northern League at 14 percent, suggesting the overall right-wing coalition would win the largest share of the vote.
The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which also promotes hard-line immigration policies, is expected to become the largest single party in parliament and the official opposition. However, Five Star Movement policy has always ruled out forming a coalition with traditional parties, meaning it is unlikely the popular movement would ever enter government in Italy's tricky political system based on coalition building.
However, with 30 to 40 percent of voters saying they are undecided, few analysts would predict the election outcome, particularly as so-called shy voters usually break for right-wing parties.
What is clear is that the migrants' issue remains a source of concern for many Italians, and the center-right has agreed to ally with far-right parties to endorse an explicitly anti-migrant election strategy.
Writing for Politico, Ferruccio Pastore, director of the Forum of International and European Research on Immigration, acknowledged that there had been a rise in anti-migrant sentiment across the board in Italy.
"The sense of disillusionment and disorientation caused by a decade of economic crisis... has created fertile ground for this particular strand of fear towards foreigners," he said.
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.