The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Italian mayor won an international award for helping migrants. Then she lost her job.

Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini, who lost her reelection bid Sunday. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Two months ago Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of a small Italian island with a population of 6,000, received the prestigious UNESCO Peace Prize. Lampedusa, the island 70 miles from the Tunisian coast that she has been governing since 2012, has experienced an influx of refugees over the past few years, and Nicolini got the award because of the “boundless humanity and unwavering commitment” with which she managed the refugee crisis.

In the past few years, Nicolini had become a national symbol of Lampedusa's willingness to help those fleeing war and poverty: When President Obama hosted a state dinner in honor of then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in 2016, Renzi brought her along as one of the people who represented the best of Italy.

Yet Nicolini failed to get reelected when local elections were held last Sunday. Not only that, she did not even come second, losing disastrously to an opponent who, during the campaign, famously said that he “cannot stand seeing migrants swarming everywhere.”

So, does Nicolini's defeat mean that being nice to migrants could cost a politician their seat?

People on the right were quick to celebrate the election results as proof that Italians are tired of helping out immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigration Northern League, mocked Nicolini for what he described as “feel-good propaganda” that cost her the election. Conservative activists joyfully posted altered images representing the former mayor as an illegal immigrant expelled from the country and memes claiming she is an agent of George Soros, the liberal tycoon whom conspiracy theorists accuse of being behind the wave of African immigration to Europe.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Nicolini said she has been insulted for the national and international attention she got because of the migrant crisis: “They called me 'ladra di medaglie,' medals thief, and accused me of talking too much to the media. But I was just trying to promote the image of the island.”

Lampedusa's economy revolves around fishing and tourism and Nicolini said that, during her tenure, she tried to balance the moral duty to welcome migrants and the need to keep the island appealing for tourists — and with good results: the tourism business grew 36 percent.

It's true that the new mayor, Salvatore “Totò” Martello, had used harsher language about migrants. Martello, who, like Nicolini, belongs to the center-left Democratic Party, won the election focusing his campaign on the promise of obtaining financial compensation for fishermen whose business is allegedly hurt by the shipwrecks of migrants’ boats. He contends that the presence of sunken ships in that area of the Mediterranean is damaging the fishermen's nets.

However, after the elections, he immediately toned down his approach, expressing his respect for migrants who risk their lives at sea.

Alessandro Puglia, a freelance journalist who did extensive work on Lampedusa and authored a documentary about the island, is skeptical that the election results had anything to do with the migrant crisis. He noted in an interview that Lampedusa's residents have demonstrated their solidarity throughout the decades: “Migrants have been coming to the island since the 1990s and locals have always offered them food and blankets. Moreover, it was often the fishermen of Lampedusa who rescued migrants at sea.”

If anything, said Puglia, some of the locals resented the fact that the mayor was getting all the attention, while their work remained largely unknown to the wider world.

Nicolini acknowledges the migrant crisis was just one of the factors, claiming that her policy of “sustainable growth” made her enemies among investors and developers less concerned with the environment.

But whether the migrant crisis was a determining factor in the local elections of this small island remains debatable, it is pretty clear that it is becoming a hot-button issue nationally. With elections scheduled next year, two of the country's major parties, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, are heavily campaigning against immigration — the latter openly using Nicolini as a target. According to a recent poll, 62 percent of Italians would favor a stricter immigration policy.