One of its campaign posters shows the profile of a North American Indian chief, complete with feather headdress, and the words: "They had immigration imposed on them – and now they live on reservations."
Italy's right-wing Northern League has long been accused of scaremongering by whipping up opposition toward immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. But the party, which critics condemn as racist and xenophobic, is in the ascendant.
During European Parliament elections last month, the party received twice as many votes as it did during an earlier election in 2004, increasing its share to 10 percent.
Now, the league has surprised its critics with an unlikely new champion: Sandy Cane, a half-American black woman whose Massachusetts-born father was a paratrooper in the US Army during World War II.
Ms. Cane, who became Italy's first black mayor, was elected in a local contest held concurrently with the European Parliament vote. She is being hailed as "Italy's Obama" and her dark curly hair and her skin tone are the legacy of a mixed race heritage similar to that of the US president. They even share the same birth year.
There the similarity ends, however, because Cane's politics place her firmly to the right of Mr. Obama.
Crackdown on illegal immigrants
The Northern League, which for years has campaigned for more autonomy for Italy's affluent north, has been the driving force behind a tough crackdown on illegal immigrants, including a recently passed law which makes the very fact of being in Italy without the proper papers a criminal offense. The policy is aimed at the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have flocked to Italy from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and whom many Italians accuse of being behind street crime, including several high-profile rapes.
Mayor Cane now finds herself in charge of the tiny northern Italian town of Viggiu (pop. 5,300), a stone's throw from the border with Switzerland. She insists there is no contradiction between being black and a champion of the Lega Nord, as her party is known in Italy.
"It is not racist to be against illegal immigration," she says. "The problem is that these people don't have papers, they are very poor, so either they must steal to eat or they are exploited by employers who give them very little money and don't care if they die.... Italians don't like to say it loudly, but there are so many illegal immigrants that big cities are scary these days."
'We stopped in the invasion'
She supports Italy's newly adopted policy of intercepting boat-loads of immigrants as they try to cross the Mediterranean and forcing them back to Libya, where most of the boats originate. One of the league's campaign posters shows a picture of African boat people packed into a ship. It boasts: "We stopped the invasion."
"The problem is far too big for Italy to handle on its own. I think the United Nations should have a much bigger presence in countries like Libya so that they can process people there. In any case, how many are really refugees, rather than economic migrants?" says Cane, who was a tour guide and English translator before she was elected mayor.
Cane's African-American father met his Italian wife while recovering from a combat wound in wartime France. They married and had two daughters, but later divorced. In 1971, when Cane was 10, her mother brought her back to her hometown of Viggiu.
"Since I came to Italy, I've only been racially insulted once, and that was by a guy in a disco who was drunk. His friends apologized on his behalf. Italians are not racist but they are afraid of the economic crisis and they are scared of losing their jobs," she says. "The people who voted for me don't care whether I'm black, white, pink, or green – they just know me as Sandy."
As mayor for the next five years, she says she would have no hesitation in having the police round up illegal immigrants found in the town. "I'd like them to see them deported," she says.
Growing influence for the Northern League
The Northern League has long campaigned for greater autonomy for Italy's affluent northern regions, which the league refers to as Padania. It's even advocated secession, although it now limits its demands for greater devolution of powers from Rome, reviled by many league supporters as "Roma ladrona" – thieving Rome. Its ideology is founded on historically dubious claims that the north of Italy has a distinct Celtic heritage – its emblem is a Lombard knight holding a sword and shield.
In Italy's general election last year, which brought Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to power for the third time, the league won 8.3 percent of the vote. Winning 10.2 percent of the vote in the European elections last month was hailed as a triumph by its leader, Umberto Bossi.
"I'm satisfied," says Mr. Bossi. "It's an important result. I said that the league would take votes from those on the left who no longer feel represented."
The league's success reflected a Europe-wide trend in which extreme right-wing parties performed well at the polls while their socialist opponents were punished by voters disenchanted with rising unemployment and illegal immigration.
Italians are now waiting with intense interest to see how the Northern League will use its new-found power to influence the policies of a government that many voters fear is already steering the country far to the right.