The recent increasing trend in immigration inflows to Europe has spotlighted the effect the presence of non-native citizens is having on the voting behaviour of the natives. At the European institutional level, the issue is crucial, since immigration policy is at the core of the debate on the future of the European Union. Interestingly, parties that are against the Eurozone and are proposing an exit strategy for their countries are often associated with protectionist views on immigration. Notable examples are the Front National in France, the Dutch Freedom Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and the Italian Lega Nord (Northern League). This political divide at the European level has been exacerbated by the refugee crisis which started in the summer 2015, where right-wing parties have clearly shown their strong opposition to a political solution of the crisis.
Anecdotal evidence and some recent empirical research has documented that immigration led to an increase in the political success of extreme right-wing parties in Spain (Mendez and Cutillas 2014), Germany (Otto and Steinhardt 2014), Denmark (Gerdes and Wadensjo 2010), Austria (Halla et al. 2013) and the US (Mayda et al. 2016). While such results are largely undisputed, a series of additional questions still await answers. Does this evidence hold also for other countries and also for ‘non-extreme’ right-wing parties? Are such findings heterogeneous across city characteristics? Is there any effect on turnout? Does immigration shape both political and administrative elections? What are the channels behind the impact of immigration on voting documented in Europe?
In a recent study (Barone et al. forthcoming), we analyse the thus far unexplored case of Italy, where immigration has been a recent and rapidly growing phenomenon. In 1998 the share of immigrants over natives was as low as 1.7% (compared with 9% in Germany, 5.6% in France). Since 1998, however, the country has seen ample inflows, reaching 8% in 2012 (while in Germany and France the share of immigrants has remained fairly constant).
Italy’s politics in the 2000s
We focus on the parliamentary national elections of 2001, 2006, and 2008. Two of these (2001 and 2008) were won by the centre-right coalition, headed by Silvio Berlusconi. The election of 2006 was, instead, won by the centre-left coalition, headed by Romano Prodi.
With respect to immigration, the political platforms of the two coalitions were consistently very different over the three elections. The centre-left alliance had a more open stance, stressing the importance of immigrants for the prospects of the domestic economy, the duty of solidarity for a high-income country, and the benefits of a multi-ethnic society. The political programme of the centre-right coalition had a less liberal stance – the emphasis was more on the social problems related to immigration (e.g. crime and lack of jobs) and the threat that people with different backgrounds could pose for the domestic way of life.
Immigration increases the votes for the centre-right coalition
By comparing the voting pattern in about 8,000 municipalities differently exposed to migration flows in three national elections, we find that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of immigrants in a municipality entails a 0.86 percentage point increase in the share of voting going to the centre-right coalition.
Where do these votes come from?
We show that the gain in votes for the centre-right coalition is associated with a loss of votes for the centre and centre-left parties. Very interestingly, and in contrast with the experience of other European countries, the impact of immigration on electoral outcomes in Italy comes mainly through the moderate centre-right (rather than extreme-right) voters. Furthermore, the increase in immigration causes a decrease in voter turnout and a rise in protest votes, i.e. blank and invalid ballot papers. This evidence might suggest that part of the centre and left-wing voters, who are ideologically more in favour of a multi-ethnic society but are not happy about the immigration trends and regulations, might have decided not to vote (or to use a protest vote) instead of directly voting for the centre-right coalition. This clearly means that recent trends in immigration have contributed to a surge of disaffection towards political participation.
Are local elections different?
At the local political level, some ideological and cultural determinants of voters’ stance on immigration might play a reduced role, since voting is supposedly more connected with the concrete costs and benefits of dwelling in a given place. On the other hand, many political decisions that influence the relationship between natives and immigrants are taken at the municipality level. Examples include allowing the construction of a new mosque and managing waiting lists for primary education. In fact, we find that the impact of immigration on outcomes in mayoral elections is similar to that found for the national elections, entailing an increase in votes for the right-wing parties.
Big cities and immigration-driven voting behaviour
Big cities behave differently – in these locations we fail to find an impact of immigration on votes for the centre-right coalition. We propose three tentative and (possibly) complementary explanations. First, in big cities it is easier to have segmented neighbourhoods, and therefore natives may be less perceptive to some possible negative impacts of immigration (crime, competition for local public services, etc.), while having the opportunity to exploit the positive sides of immigration (cheap housemaids and nannies, etc.). Second, people living in big cities are on average more skilled – educated workers may be more protected from the increased labour market competition that results from immigration. Third, immigration in big cities started sooner than in smaller municipalities – becoming accustomed to the presence of the immigrants over some time might have induced an adaptive response in natives’ attitudes, diminishing the initial apprehensions.
Channels: voters and parties
Our final contribution concerns the channels through which the impact of immigration on votes for the centre-right coalition occurs. Why do voters change preferences and voting behaviour as a reaction to immigration inflows? We show that cultural diversity (in terms of religious diversity), competition in the labour market, and competition for public services (e.g. schooling) all play an important role in affecting changes in voters’ preferences. On the other hand, the native perception that immigrants cause crime does not seem to be a key driver.
Another mechanism concerns the political parties’ side: How do parties change their strategies when immigration inflows increase? In this respect, we find that the strength of the political competition is key. When political competition is low the immigration effect is stronger, likely because political parties have the incentives to select ideological candidates, who in turn will focus on ideological issues such as immigration. In contrast, when political competition is high the impact of immigration decreases, because parties tend to select expert candidates and in general fewer will focus on ideological issues in order to attract the votes of swing voters.
Authors’ note: The views expressed in this column should be attributed to the authors alone and not to the institutions with which they are affiliated.
Barone, G, A D’Ignazio, G de Blasio, P Naticchioni (forthcoming), “Mr. Rossi, Mr. Hu and politics. The role of immigration in shaping natives’ voting behavior”, Journal of Public Economics.
Gerdes, C, and E Wadensjö (2008) “The Impact of Immigration on Election Outcomes in Danish Municipalities", IZA Discussion Paper No. 3586
Halla, M, A Wagner, and J Zweimüller (2013), “Does Immigration into Their Neighborhoods Incline Voters Toward the Extreme Right? The Case of the Freedom Party of Austria”, IZA Discussion Paper No. 6575.
Mayda, A M, G Peri, and W Steingress (2016), “Immigration to the US: a problem for the Republicans or the Democrats?”, NBER Working Paper No. 21941 (see also their Vox column here).
Mendez, I, and I M Cutillas (2014), “Has immigration affected Spanish presidential elections results?”, Journal of Population Economics 27, 135-171
Otto, A H, and M F Steinhardt (2014), “Immigration and election outcomes — Evidence from city districts in Hamburg”, Regional Science and Urban Economics 45, 67–79.