Sicily’s election moves it to centre stage of Italian politics

Populist Five Star movement has swarmed the island in search of political breakthrough

Beppe Grillo (centre), co-founder of the Five Star Movement, at a rally in Aci Trezza on Sicily, on October 28th. Photograph:  Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

Beppe Grillo (centre), co-founder of the Five Star Movement, at a rally in Aci Trezza on Sicily, on October 28th. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

 

For Italian politicians, it’s high season in Sicily. Days before the island votes in regional elections on Sunday, the country’s ambitious and warring political protagonists have turned the southern Italian island into a political theatre, hoping that a good showing by their coalition partners will sway national elections set for next year.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (81) returned – with less weight, more hair and tighter skin – to his former electoral stronghold to warm his hopes of a political comeback, casting himself in a new persona as a wise old moderate for polarised times.

Another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, whose Democratic Party is expected to lose big, braved a brief appearance last Friday despite concerns the island’s voters could dent his own political comeback. Renzi then spent the last crucial campaign days far away, meeting with Barack Obama in Chicago.

But among all the competing forces, it is the Five Star Movement’s leaders, including its co-founder Beppe Grillo, who have most eagerly swarmed Sicily, looking to seize on their last and best opportunity to build momentum before national elections in early 2018.

Supporters of the idiosyncratic, ideologically amorphous populist party hope they will win a chance to govern their first Italian region and build a reputation for governance after managerial disasters in some Italian cities. Critics of the party across the political spectrum are treating the election as a kind of a Mediterranean Waterloo, hoping to make a stand against what they consider a conspiracy theory-prone rabble more interested in stoking anger and exercising authoritarian control than in actual governance.

“If we win in Sicily, certainly we spread the awareness throughout Italy that you can change,” said Giancarlo Cancelleri (42), the Five Star candidate for governor of the island. “These Sicilian elections will have an impact well beyond the borders of Sicily.”

Divisive issues

As the poorest region in Italy, Sicily’s dense concentration of divisive issues has made it a fertile land for the Five Star Movement and its centrepiece proposal of a universal guaranteed income and its criticism of the European Union and unchecked immigration.

Rampant joblessness and corruption have led to an exodus of young people and the waves of African migration have increased anti-immigrant sentiment. But Sicily – with 17,000 public employees – also has a deep history of relying on government jobs and contracts, a situation that some analysts still think benefits the centre-right, which has a slight edge in the latest opinion polls.

Giancarlo Cancelleri, the Five Star Movement’s candidate for governor of the island, in Villafranca Tirrena, Italy. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times
Giancarlo Cancelleri, the Five Star Movement’s candidate for governor of the island, in Villafranca Tirrena, Italy. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

All of that has made Sicily a perfect testing ground for political themes, especially on the right, where the Five Star Movement has a strong appeal. “Politically, they are on the right,” Giovanni Merrina (54) said of the party as he watched Cancelleri speak in Milazzo, near the island’s northeastern tip. For now, almost everyone agrees, the race to become Sicily’s governor has narrowed to Nello Musumeci, the candidate of a broad centre-right coalition, and the Five Star Movement’s Cancelleri.

The final days of the race have especially inflamed the invective. Conservative candidates have tried to stain the reputation of the Five Star Movement, pointing out an indictment of its members for forging signatures to get on election ballots and a judge’s ruling that cast doubt on an online primary for excluding a candidate who didn’t sign a “code of ethics”.

Speaking in Palermo on Wednesday, Berlusconi proposed tougher immigration measures and a 10-year tax break for emigrated Sicilians who returned to the island. He also predicted that the national elections would come down to a choice between a united centre-right and the Five Star Movement, though in his mind, it wasn’t much of a choice.

“Whoever votes for the Five Star Movement is a person lacking reason, who doesn’t have the interest of his children and grandchildren at heart,” he said.

Fig leaf

Five Star candidates have threatened to “burn alive” a political opponent, accused the centre-right candidate of being a fig leaf for an “unpresentable” rogue’s gallery of corrupt politicians, and called for international observers to prevent the buying of votes.

Nello Musumeci, a leading centre-right candidate, at a rally in Belpasso, Italy, on October 28th. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times
Nello Musumeci, a leading centre-right candidate, at a rally in Belpasso, Italy, on October 28th. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

That anger infused the Five Star Movement’s campaign rally last Saturday night in Catania, in the shadow of the active volcano Mount Etna, where Grillo headlined an event that featured the party’s major players. Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star nominee for prime minister next year, pitched himself as a fellow southern Italian and promised that once in power his party would “be the shield of Sicily against the madness of Brussels”.

Alessandro Di Battista, the firebrand Five Star heartthrob, started slow before burning up the crowd with his list of grievances and “everything done against us” by the political establishment. He reminded listeners that Berlusconi had supported politicians who ended up in jail because of mafia ties and he mocked politicians who remained the same despite (face) “lifting after lifting”. “But isn’t it time to change?” Di Battista shouted in a vulgarity-laced speech.

Grillo outlined his sprawling vision of a future of decentralised governments, a system that he said could benefit the relatively autonomous Sicily. But first, he said, Sicilians needed to let the Five Star Movement free them from the prison of the Italian establishment and globalist interests.

Recent opinion polls suggest that Sicilians are not entirely ready to take that leap, as Musumeci, the candidate of a broad conservative coalition, has a narrow lead. Last Saturday morning, he helped open the headquarters of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party. The ceremony took place in the historic seat of the Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist political party founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini and dissolved more than 20 years ago.

“To win in Sicily means to reserve victory in the national elections,” Musumeci said in an interview as he stood on the building’s balcony, under a likeness of the flame representing the Italian Social Movement. As the chosen candidate of Berlusconi and of a coalition of centre-right national politicians, Musumeci exuded confidence.

Five Star supporters at a rally in Catania, Sicily, on October 28th. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times
Five Star supporters at a rally in Catania, Sicily, on October 28th. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

“The only people who are scared are the Grillini,” he said, using a term to describe the followers of Grillo. He added that he felt a great responsibility, not only to Sicilians, but to all of Italy to stop the Five Star Movement. “If the Grillini lose in Sicily,” he said, “I believe they have no shot to win in the national elections.”

Frustrated left

With lacklustre approval ratings, Sicily’s current governor, Rosario Crocetta, the first openly gay governor in Italy and an anti-mafia crusader, opted not to run for re-election, under pressure from Renzi. But the left’s candidates, further weakened by infighting, have created concern that their frustrated voters might defect to the Five Star Movement.

“The centre-left didn’t have the courage to fight the battle I have fought in these five years,” Crocetta said as he took a Saturday afternoon stroll through Catania’s main square, smoking cigarettes and surrounded by bodyguards. He chatted amiably with Five Star Movement officials setting up for the night’s rally and conceded that the race had come down to Cancelleri and Musumeci.

Supporters and news media at the opening of the headquarters of the right-wing Brothers of Italy Party in Catania, Italy. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times
Supporters and news media at the opening of the headquarters of the right-wing Brothers of Italy Party in Catania, Italy. Photograph: Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

“Unfortunately, while the Five Star Movement put their hopes in the candidate that I beat five years ago, the left decided to change their horse,” he said. “When you win, you don’t change horses!”

Yet on the campaign trail, many Sicilians seemed convinced that change was coming, and perhaps not just on the island. “It’s a protest vote,” said Giovanni Bonaccorso (25) as the young Five Star Movement candidates drank espresso with him and other supporters in the small seaside town of Villafranca Tirrena. “And usually who wins in Sicily wins in the country.” – New York Times

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