ECMI Minorities Blog. Patterns of Immigrants’ Political Participation in Rural Italy

Giorgia Zogu
2024-05-08
© shutterstock.com / Massimo Todaro

*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***

Author: Giorgia Zogu  |  https://doi.org/10.53779/SMCA5211​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​ Giorgia Zogu is a PhD Candidate at the Department for Political Science at the University of Vienna (Austria) and is a member of the INEX research group. She is a researcher at the Institute for Minority Rights and the Centre for Migration and Diversity at Eurac Research in Bolzano (Italy). Giorgia holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Vienna. Her research is centered around migration, local-level politics, and political participation, with a specific emphasis on rural areas. Giorgia participated in the 2022 ECMI Summer School on 'Minorities as Citizens' in Oñati, Spain.

 

 

Political participation is the lifeblood of democratic governance, weaving the collective voice of the people into the intricate fabric of decision-making. In the conventional understanding, political participation encompasses a spectrum of activities ranging from voting and public discussions to contemporary forms such as internet activism and social media engagement. However, the dynamics of political participation take on unique challenges when viewed through the lens of immigrant integration. As immigrants become an increasingly significant demographic all over Europe, their political participation plays a pivotal role in fostering equality and representation. Yet the path to political participation for immigrants is fraught with obstacles, including disparities based on ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and the complex citizenship regime in place. Italy, despite hosting a substantial immigrant population, grapples with a lack of uniformity in civic and political participation approaches for both EU citizens and third-country nationals (TCNs) at all levels. Even though the immigrant population represents 8.6% of the total population in 2023, the country has not yet adopted a unified approach to civic and political participation for EU and TCNs at the local level. Therefore, this article asks what political participation looks like in rural areas where disparities are more visible.

In Italy, those who do not hold the citizenship of an EU member state have no guaranteed right to vote in local elections, and even access to Italian citizenship itself still involves stringent criteria. Traditionally overshadowed by urban studies concerning mainstream institutionalized forms of participation, rural areas present a nuanced perspective where non-institutionalized and civic participation such as community volunteering, church involvement, and social networks take centre stage. Thus, the focus extends beyond the conventional understanding of political participation, questioning whether established models adequately capture the essence of participation in rural areas. Therefore, this article aims to shed light on how the specific characteristics of a place influence the participation of immigrants, with a clear focus on Italian rural contexts.

 

Participation rights in the Italian context

The principle of jus sanguinis, according to which citizenship rights are transmitted primarily through descent, is closely linked to the acquisition of citizenship. The main beneficiaries of this policy are people of Italian descent, as opposed to those who were born in the territory (jus soli). As a result, people born abroad to one or more Italian parents can have access to Italian citizenship for several generations. However, for immigrants and their children born in Italy, the road to Italian citizenship is significantly more difficult. Particularly regarding TCNs, the Italian citizenship system shows a clear tendency toward exclusivity.

In adherence to the trends observed across European states, Italy predominantly associates formal political rights, in particular voting rights, with citizenship. In terms of political participation for people stemming from third countries, the enormous restrictions created by the citizenship regime make political participation extremely difficult, since TCNs do not hold participation rights at all levels of government. Regarding EU citizens, the Maastricht Treaty, which has been in force since 1993, delineates specific rights and entitlements. In terms of political rights, EU citizens possess the prerogative to participate in elections and stand as candidates either in the elections for the European Parliament or within the electoral processes of any EU member state. They can also participate in local elections hosted by any EU nation, excluding their own, under identical conditions to the nationals of the respective host state.

 

Why is immigrant participation important?

A crucial component of immigrants’ integration into society is their involvement in the political process. This is especially important because immigrant populations and their children are becoming a larger social group in Europe. But often, immigrants do not adopt the political participation model of their ‘new’ country of residence because they were born (and often socialized) in a country with a different political culture than the one to which they emigrate. Alternatively, if the mode of participation is determined by cost-benefit calculations in later life rather than childhood socialization, we might expect immigrants’ “trade-offs” to become more like those of the majority population as their socioeconomic status and familiarity with the political environment of their new country increases. This could eventually lead to the same pattern of political participation as the general population.

As mentioned above, preferences for certain forms of political engagement are also shaped by citizenship status, which is the primary distinction between immigrants who are citizens and those who are not. Nevertheless, several Italian cities have introduced alternative platforms to allow immigrants to participate, including the establishment of regional integration councils (consulte immigrati). These councils, acting as advisory or consultative entities, represent the immigrant population at the local level. Nevertheless, limited participation rights and involvement solely in neighbourhood initiatives further perpetuate the political exclusion of immigrants.

 

Rural areas and participation – what to look for?

In rural areas, small projects for targeting community awareness are mostly initiated by European Union funds. Community participation hinges on residents engaging in initiatives aimed at fostering growth and enhancing resources. These endeavours seek to motivate residents for active involvement in public life, encouraging social interaction, area development, and driving local growth through political participation. The narrower range of topics under consideration, as well as the reduced issue complexity, are expected to lessen the resource costs of participation, allowing citizens from different educational backgrounds and with different civic skills to participate.

Over the past year, I have conducted more than 30 interviews in different rural areas in Piedmont, Latium, and Campania with immigrants (both with and without Italian  citizenship), clergymen, politicians and civil society organizations (CSOs). The aim was to understand whether in high-density immigrant areas, immigrants participate politically at the local rural level, and whether and how their participation is fostered by local authorities.

 

Standing as candidates and the local councils

The biggest surprise was to discover that institutionalized participation by immigrants is virtually nonexistent, or at least very low. Although citizens of EU origin have the right to vote and run as a candidate in municipal elections, out of nine municipalities only three had one immigrant person (each) who was interested in this type of participation. Two of these were elected, while one was not. One of the two elected, however, left office relatively early because she had not reckoned how much effort it would take. Other forms of institutionalized participation were not found, given that none of the municipalities has set up a council for immigrants.

What needs to be highlighted in this regard is the country of origin of the people active in the institutionalized forms of participation in the rural areas. In fact, among all the different backgrounds, the only group active in this area was the Romanians. Out of nine rural communities, three had Romanian citizens run for the local city council. Drawing from the interviews, it seems that linguistic proximity (e.g. Romanian being a Romance language) was key to the increased political participation of these citizens. This would be in line with research showing that linguistic proximity facilitates participation. This is interesting since Romanians are not the community that has been in the area the longest, which would be the Albanians. According to the literature, length of stay influences participation patterns and the longer one resides in a certain territory, the more one is interested in politics. However, this could not be seen as a pattern in the nine rural areas, since Albanians were not active in conventional political participation but only in unconventional and civic politics.

As far as conventional participation is concerned, I did not find any desire on the part of the mayors and city councillors of most localities (except for one) to draw immigrant people from the community into politics. The most popular response to this question was “they have other things to worry about, they are not interested.”

 

Volunteering for the community

Volunteerism, on the other hand, is the driving force behind immigrant participation in rural areas. Although the researched areas are very different in terms of socio-economic profiles, the level of development, and the availability of financial resources, the common denominator is being active in volunteering. Of course, there are structural differences; that is, some municipalities have better-organized infrastructure, while others do not. For example, one of the municipalities has opened an information desk where immigrants arriving in the area can go and ask for information regarding documents, employment, and other issues. Resident immigrants who want to make themselves useful to the community volunteer there. This is an example of more structured participation in an area of high socioeconomic status. If we look at more deprived areas, volunteering takes the form of helping to organise any kind of event or initiative that takes place in the municipality, such as festivals and fairs. Some municipalities, on their own initiative and not supported by regional or state projects, organize intercultural festivals aimed at integration. On these occasions, people of different origins participate in organizing various booths where typical dishes are cooked or traditional music is performed.

 

Churches as a space of (political) participation

Another pillar for the participation of immigrants is the local church. The church acts as a linchpin for volunteer activities and village festivities. In one locality, for example, the pastor of the local church has opened a shelter for migrants passing through on their way to cross the border with France. They stay for a few days and then continue their journey to other European states. In this case, the shelter is run by the church, and many immigrants residing in the municipality volunteer in this way. Some cook, some collect clothes, and others explain to people who are passing through about the risks they face trying to get to the border (especially in wintertime). In another village, during the pandemic-related lockdowns, the church organized meals that people then brought to those in need, very often the elderly. Many immigrants participated in the parish priest’s initiative by taking the food around.

What is also interesting is the participation by people of different religions in church initiatives. In all the nine small communities, I was told repeatedly by both priests and immigrants how people, no matter what religion they belong to, are very involved in the festivals and initiatives organized by the church because these benefit the community and integration.

 

The role of social networks

Perhaps the most interesting data, however, emerged regarding social and network connections. In each case, the intensity of political participation was correlated with the strength of one's social relations within a given community, which is in line with existing research. Also, in all the studied communities, the issue of trust in immigrants played a significant role in participation but also in their integration into the community. In fact, many of the respondents stressed repeatedly about how they “know everyone within the community” or “they [the people in the community] know we are good people”. Sometimes, the depth of trust was highlighted through multi-generational presence in the community: “we bought a house, my children were baptized, received communion and confirmation, and now they also bought a house here. I now have grandchildren who were born here”. This willingness to assert oneself at all costs and gain the trust of the local people to become part of the community is something that emerged very strongly. The importance of social networks is reflected especially in the context of institutionalized participation. In fact, the people active in this field that I was able to interview told of how they were sought out by the mayor, and how having these social connections and being a trusted person within their municipality led them to their offices. The great importance of how an immigrant person is perceived within the community also emerged from the mayors who were interviewed. Indeed, if from the interviews with immigrant people the question of how one is perceived and trusted was a cornerstone, this was also found in what the mayors recounted. In fact, the mayors stressed that when they decided to approach a possible local council candidate, they opted to choose someone with a well-established business, many years of residency in the area, and with roots now firmly established in the community rather than in their place of origin. Probably because of this, the issue of “having bought a house here” was touched upon several times by different interviewees.

 

Concluding remarks

In the tapestry of political participation, the threads of immigrant participation in rural Italy reveal a complex and nuanced picture. While conventional institutionalized forms of participation remain largely underutilized, the landscape is rich with non-institutionalized and civic participation avenues. Volunteering, often driven by the force of community spirit and the desire for belonging, emerges as a powerful catalyst for political participation in rural areas. The role of the local church, acting as a hub for both volunteer activities and social connections, underscores the multifaceted nature of immigrant engagement. As immigrants participate in initiatives ranging from shelters for migrants to organizing meals during challenging times, the church becomes a vital bridge between newcomers and the communities. Moreover, social networks play a pivotal role in shaping political participation. Trust, a cornerstone in an immigrant's journey toward integration, intertwines with perceptions within the community. The narratives of those seeking political office highlight the importance of being perceived as trustworthy, emphasizing deep roots in the community over the place of origin.

The findings challenge the traditional narratives of political participation focusing primarily on urban contexts, urging a broader perspective that encompasses the unique dynamics of rural environments. As the spotlight shifts from institutionalized structures to grassroots initiatives, it becomes apparent that political participation is not a ‘one size fits all’ concept. Rather, it is a mosaic shaped by the interplay of cultural proximity, trust, and community connections.

 

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