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Electoral discontent in Italy

The United States looks likely to lose its highest-profile supporter in ‘old Europe’ when Italy holds its general election next year. Italians revealed the extent of their disillusionment with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during regional elections held in 13 of Italy’s 20 regions on April 3 and 4. Berlusconi’s four-party conservative coalition was soundly defeated, losing six of the eight regions it previously held. The depth of concern was also displayed by strong voter turnout despite the elections coinciding with the Pope’s death.

Apart from a lukewarm economy and the general realisation that success at running a business doesn’t automatically make for success at running a country, discontent was focused on a few specific areas. The most prominent of these was the extent of Berlusconi’s media ownership and his continued manoeuvring to further increase his powers.

There was widespread concern over the proposal to repeal the par condicio law that guarantees equal media time to the main political parties. Berlusconi owns five of the seven main television channels, and also arguably controls the state-run RAI. His attempt to repeal the par condicio law was rightly viewed as an attempt to grant his media empire even greater?power. Other blatant attempts to model himself as a modern-day Caesar Augustus include proposals to increase the powers of the prime minister at the expense of the president, and to reduce the powers and freedom of public prosecution and the constitutional court.

Also troubling the great majority of Italians was Italy’s involvement in Iraq. A belated decision by Berlusconi to begin reducing troop numbers there was seen as a grudging attempt to appease public demand. In addition there was general embarrassment at Berlusconi’s performance during Italy’s tenure as chair of the EU. His numerous diplomatic fumbles caused some friction within the EU, and while they probably did no lasting damage to Italy’s international reputation, they certainly damaged Berlusconi’s reputation across Europe and within Italy.
Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the results of these elections are  an encouraging example of a democracy protecting its institutions and resisting the consolidation of too much power in any one individual. There was even widespread disapproval of a proposed tax cut at a time when Italy, with its huge budget deficit, could clearly not afford it. Even the usually safe conservative region of Lazio, the region that includes Rome, rejected this Berlusconi bribe.

I viewed these elections far from Rome, among the rugged beauty and decaying grandeur of Sicily. Isolated from mainland Italy by the Straits of Messina and a history of economic hardship, Sicily is one of the five regions with limited autonomy that did not vote in the regional elections.

The Sicilian capital Palermo forms the bottom point of the starkest geometric display of wealth distribution imaginable. From Milan, with close to the highest per capita income in the world, average income decreases dramatically all the way down through  Italy, along a straight line to Palermo. The quality of urban infrastructure seems to suffer an even steeper decline.

The economic divide between Sicily and northern Italy is immediately apparent. Most noticeable is the chaos (especially the traffic) and the urban decay: terrible roads, crumbling buildings, very few parks or gardens, and the poor state or complete absence of the usual social amenities such as sporting facilities and libraries.

As a tourist destination Sicily is very much the ‘authentic experience’. There are no road rules of any sort—well, it appears that way—and not much by way of road signs, public transport or English-speaking locals to offer directions. But neither are there brash American tourists wearing matching tracksuits. The adventurous traveller will eventually discover well preserved ancient Greek temples, beautiful beaches, perhaps the best (and cheapest) food and coffee in Italy, and many scenes of daily life that you would not think still existed.

Assuming you survive, just one visit to Sicily will give you enough traffic anecdotes to last a lifetime. On a recent visit while speeding along a narrow street in Palermo late one evening, I was passed by a car travelling at Schumacher speed. In this case I was overtaken by a shiny new Fiat Uno entirely filled with goats. I counted five, in addition to the arms of what appeared to be a human driver.

Sicily has been occupied almost continuously for more than 2000 years by an incredible diversity of foreign rulers. Beginning with the Carthaginians and Corinthians, these occupations have left the island with a remarkable architectural legacy, from the ancient city of Syracuse—home of Archimedes—to Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples and Palermo’s fascinating Roman, Norman and Arabic structures. There are also many relatively uncrowded beaches, such as the jet-setters’ haven, Toarmina—a beautiful seaside resort, with a Greek amphitheatre and view of Mount Etna—and my favourite, the charming coastal town of Cefalu.

That Sicily has so much natural and historical beauty makes it all the more frustrating. So much potential lost in such a chaotic mess. It appears that the only thing Sicily has ever managed to organise is its crime. What seems like comical disarray to the unhurried tourist are signs of a dysfunctional government that has been a black hole for both local taxpayer and national government funds for several decades. The extensive Sicilian diaspora in Australia, the US and other parts of Italy and Europe is a telling indication of high unemployment and a worsening economic situation

The overwhelming cause of this economic depression and poor infrastructure is the pervasive power of the Mafia. Billions of lire and euros have disappeared as Mafia-controlled contractors have built substandard concrete apartment blocks at inflated prices. Large, bland apartment blocks ring almost every town and city, while their grand historic centres decay, and basic facilities like hospitals remain in a state of disrepair for want of funding.

The Mafia has deliberately taken a lower-profile approach in Sicily over the past decade, but its continuing power is been widely reported. It is so pervasive, in fact, that much of the reporting has been done outside of Italy.

Also well documented is the role the US played in the resuscitation of the Mafia after Mussolini had virtually wiped it out. (Perhaps the only good thing about the fascist dictator was his willingness and ability to tackle crime.) Faced with the prospect of the communists’ ascension following the power vacuum at the end of World War II, the US government supported former Mafia bosses in politics, beginning the long dominance of the Christian Democrat/Mafia alliance.   

Home to just under ten per cent of Italy’s population, Sicily votes like a special-interest group, exerting a significant influence on the outcome of the national election. Politics, and football, arouse strong passions on this island. It’s a safe bet that the argument between the short, sturdy men gesticulating like crazy in some bar is about one of the two. But while vocal arguments between communists and neo-fascists may make the headlines, Sicily votes in a pragmatic way.

‘Pragmatic’ at election time generally means voting for the party that promises to create the most jobs and to redistribute the most funds from the north. From this point of view Berlusconi has been a disappointment. Employment continues to decline, and Berlusconi has further angered the south with plans to devolve powers to the regions, in particular the north, lessening the north-to-south subsidy. And even Sicilians, usually focused on their own economic plight, are concerned about media concentration and Iraq. Losing the support of Sicily would surely be the nail in Berlusconi’s coffin.

Drinking great coffee at a Sicilian bar that typically saw its last coat of paint before I was born, I view it as belated justice that this island could have the final say in ousting one of the US’s greatest supporters from Berlusconi’s somewhat tarnished office. Nothing will change for the people here. Unemployment will continue to drive the exodus of the young and educated, and Sicily will remain frustratingly far from becoming the island paradise it could be. But the stand against Berlusconi consolidating too much power is at least one step in the right direction.



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