Experience not Origins: Political Pathways in South Tyrol
In the municipal elections of 2020 in South Tyrol, northern Italy, four of the 45 people elected had a migration background. The news featured prominently in all the local major newspapers. The reason: it was the first time in the region’s history that people with a migration background were represented in such numbers. The quantity of media coverage made me question why the election of these people was being reported so prominently. Is our involvement in politics dictated by where we come from or by our abilities?
In a recent study conducted at the University of Vienna, I explored the pathway to politics of some of these candidates in Bolzano/Bozen. The study specifically engaged with candidates who had a migration background, be it visible or non-visible, investigating their experiences within politics. The study identified visible candidates as people of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic back grounds (BAME). Candidates said to have non-visible migratory backgrounds were of European ancestry.
Immigration Background and Reception
The candidates with a migration background were asked about their experiences in politics and if they had ever faced prejudice based on their visible or non-visible migration background, especially as right-wing parties have recently been gaining political traction in Italy. As pointed out by one of the interviewees: “I did not particularly suffer from this distinction because few people wanted to highlight it”.
Interestingly, there was not a single candidate with immigration background who felt that their migratory history was a hindrance to their success. On the contrary, most of them report positive experiences: “I was really well received. In fact, since I didn't know German very well, the party and the Verdi coordination, spoke in Italian for a while. Since it was customary to speak in German in this party, many tried to mix Italian and German, or only in Italian (...) They paved the way for me on everything”.
Many claimed that the ability to campaign in more than one language had allowed the party to gain more followers and supporters. One of the candidates even recalls people from neighboring regions travelling all the way to Bolzano to congratulate her, because she was running for their party: “They love me, they respect me very much (the party). Those of the party who learned that an Iraqi woman had stood as a candidate with Lega came to meet me from Verona, Rovereto, Trento and Bolzano”.
Based on these statements it was evident that none of the candidates with a migration background had ever been victim to any prejudice based on their origins within the South Tyrolean political sphere. But how and why did they get into politics?
“They love me, they respect me very much (the party). Those of the party who learned that an Iraqi woman had stood as a candidate with Lega came to meet me from Verona, Rovereto, Trento and Bolzano”
The Immigrant Council as Springboard
In South Tyrol, the Immigrant Council is a local advisory body composed of residents from EU, non-EU countries or stateless people without the Italian citizenship, who live in the Province. The Councils, present in Bolzano and in other larger municipalities, were created with the aim of providing an official platform for representation for foreign citizens, to encourage democratic participation and to promote dialogue.
Candidates with a migration background gave clear examples of how being active in the Immigrant Council worked as a springboard for their political careers. Involvement in the Councils has proven to be one of the most common mechanisms for people with a migration background to get involved in formal politics. It seems to have worked as a springboard for most candidates, who through their work in the Council, got to know political personalities.
Six out of twelve interviewed candidates with immigration backgrounds had joined different Immigrant Councils throughout the years. One of them recalls his experience in the Immigrant Council of CITY as a very positive one that allowed him to connect with different political personalities in the Province. Thanks to his position in the Council and to his work with voluntary associations, he became very prominent in Bolzano’s political scene and was consequently asked to join a political party. The same goes for another candidate, who, also thanks to his participation in the Council, managed to be elected back in 2015.
Voluntary Associations as an entry point
Other than participation in the Immigrant Council, the activity that seems to have had the most influence on candidate’s political careers was their previous engagement in voluntary associations. One interviewee explains: “I am a social worker. I practically started working immediately because I already knew Italian. So, when I arrived here, I was helping in the refugee camp. In the last 20 years, I have been involved in projects for the integration of immigrants, mostly focused on helping them access to work opportunities”.
He recalls meeting many political personalities in the early stages of working at the refugee camp and, later, getting involved in politics through the politicians he worked with back in those days. He was also very active in the “Partito Democratico” and undertook some research on the involvement of people with an immigrant background in politics. He managed to get on the party’s list because of his previous work as a mediator and his experiences in different humanitarian organizations.
Other candidates with migration backgrounds also recollected being active in voluntary associations before becoming interested in politics. They started their pathways working for women’s rights associations or organizations for immigrant students. They also recalled how the work in these fields enabled them to establish their connections with politicians.
From the study conducted in South Tyrol, it seems that having a visible or non-visible migration background is not of great relevance in terms of entering politics. More significant is the participation in alternative forms of politics, social and voluntary activities as well as in associations.
Visible or non-visible, it doesn’t matter!
From the study conducted in South Tyrol, it seems that having a visible or non-visible migration background is not of great relevance in terms of entering politics. More significant is the participation in alternative forms of politics, social and voluntary activities as well as in associations. Previous work in these fields seems to make a real difference in political activity whereas candidate’s personal or visible backgrounds do not.
Going forward, societies should aim to become more inclusive, simplifying the process of integration. In the small reality of South Tyrol, we have seen how this already seems to work. It would be interesting for future research to extend the South Tyrolean case to larger, urban contexts. In addition, it would be worthwhile exploring whether South Tyrol’s successful integration into politics of people with a migrant background is related to the presence of diverse autochthonous minority communities.