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The Italian region of Tuscany has long been a left-wing stronghold. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, it has experienced political upheaval as the hard-right, anti-immigrant party known as the League has ousted left-leaning political leaders in many towns for the first time in decades.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Pisa's Square of Miracles is a major tourist attraction. The cathedral, baptistery and iconic leaning tower were built more than a thousand years ago in a blend of Byzantine and Islamic styles, symbolizing the powerful maritime republic's trade links across the Mediterranean.
Today, Pisa, with 90,000 people, has a Muslim community of 2,000. Two years ago, the center-left administration approved its request for a mosque on Pisa's outskirts. But after the League won power last year, the new mayor fulfilled a campaign promise and vetoed the mosque's construction.
Mohammad Khalil, a Palestinian and Italian citizen who came here 39 years ago to study engineering, is president of Pisa's Muslim community.
MOHAMMAD KHALIL: (Through interpreter) I guess fear-mongering works. The League keep saying Italians first, but many of us are also Italian citizens and just as concerned about security as everyone else is.
POGGIOLI: Repeated requests to see Pisa's mayor or members of his administration were refused. But Davide Cinini, a former leftist, was willing to explain why he embraced the hard-right League. He accuses the center-left Democratic Party, in power at the national level until June last year, of following European Union orders imposing austerity measures that he says led to increased economic stagnation and high unemployment.
DAVIDE CININI: (Through interpreter) When a leftist party promotes policies that are not leftist, that are against the working class, I'm not the one who changed. What's happening around me has changed.
POGGIOLI: Democratic Party activist Michele Ceraolo acknowledges the left failed to grasp citizens' economic anxieties after the financial crisis.
MICHELE CERAOLO: The right, at the moment, has a strong storytelling. The left has none. The right knows how to talk to the heart of the people. I know that you are insecure. You have fear.
POGGIOLI: Fear of the 600,000 migrants who arrived in Italy in the last five years. The migrants' surge was followed by the League's surge in local and national elections. Since party leader Matteo Salvini became Italy's deputy prime minister last year, his popularity has soared as he bulldozed camps where Roma families lived, sharply curtailed funds for refugee shelters and shut down Italy's ports to migrant rescue ships.
We're at a spot in Montecatini where men and women sip prosecco as they celebrate the League's victory in municipal elections last May. Walls are covered with posters proclaiming Italy first and hailing Salvini, il Capitano, as national savior. Local League leader Andrea Picchielli accuses the Democratic Party of doing nothing to stop the migrant influx and rejects its criticism of the League's policies.
ANDREA PICCHIELLI: Sometimes they called us racist. We are not racist at all. We want to help people who have, really, the right to stay here - but not everybody.
POGGIOLI: Maria Ardagna, an ardent Salvini fan, believes in the decades-old racist trope the great replacement conspiracy, which she sees as a plot to replace white Europeans with black migrants. She says she knows the plotters are big names in international finance.
MARIA ARDAGNA: Soros, Rockefeller, Rothschild.
POGGIOLI: Like many other League voters, Ardagna is not a fan of Pope Francis, who recently warned that fearmongers have made people intolerant and, perhaps without realizing it, racist.
ARDAGNA: (Through interpreter) He does un-Christian things. When he travels and finds families in need, he doesn't bring Christians back to Rome. He brings Muslims. He's not a pope. For us, he's the Antichrist.
POGGIOLI: The victory party ends with a speech by a rising star, 32-year-old Susanna Ceccardi. As the League's first elected mayor in Tuscany in 2016, she scrapped government-funded projects to help migrants integrate in favor of hiring private guards as night-time sentinels. She tells the crowd she's sick and tired of the left accusing the League of being heartless.
SUSANNA CECCARDI: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: "I strongly believe," says Ceccardi, "that bulldozing Roma camps and curbing illegal immigration by shutting down ports, as Salvini has done, are great humanitarian acts."
POGGIOLI: In May, Ceccardi won a seat for the League in the European Parliament in Brussels. Next year, she plans to run for governor of the entire region of Tuscany. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Montecatini.
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