Mafia politics sway vote
Toby Abse analyses the significance of the Sicilian election results earlier this month
The November 5 Sicilian regional election was the last major electoral contest before the Italian general election - currently expected to take place in March 2018. As a consequence, it was widely regarded as the best indication of the outcome of the national contest. And the victory of the so-called ‘centre-right’ - the coalition led by the 62-year-old neo-fascist veteran, Nello Musumeci, who has now become president of the Sicilian region - is an indication that the national coalition of Forza Italia-Lega-Fratelli d’Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi, is likely to be the strongest grouping in the next Italian parliament.1
The Movimento Cinque Stelle(M5S - Five Star Movement) had hoped that Sicily would be the launching pad for a nationwide triumph next March, just as M5S’s unexpectedly high score in Sicily five years earlier (14.9%) had been a foretaste of its sudden breakthrough into national parliamentary politics in February 2013. Although its list for the Sicilian regional assembly gained 26.7%, placing M5S clearly ahead of any other single party (and nearly doubling its vote in the previous regional election), and its presidential candidate, Giancarlo Cancelleri, got a very impressive 34.6%, the result suggests that its hopes of forming the next national government are fading.
However, if the result was a cruel disappointment for M5S, it was an absolute disaster for Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD). The PD itself got 13.2% and the candidate it supported as regional president, Fabrizio Nicari, the rector of Palermo University, with no previous public political allegiance, got 18.5% of the vote - considerably below the combined 25.4% of the four lists making up his coalition.2 Whilst the election was not a disaster for the left, the 6.2% of Claudio Fava, its presidential candidate, and the 5.3% of its list (Cento Passi per la Sicilia - a united front of the Movimento Democratico e Progressista [MDP], Sinistra Italiana [SI], Partito della Rifondazione Comunista [PRC], Possibile and the Greens) were below its own expectations and below some of its earlier opinion poll scores; it obtained a single seat in the regional assembly.
In some ways, the most notable and most depressing feature of the election was not the score of any of the contending parties, but the very low turnout - slightly under 47%. There was clearly a widespread sense of hopelessness amongst a large section of the Sicilian electorate - a belief that nothing could ever change, that the island’s politics would always be mired in corruption and linked to organised crime. This despair has been reinforced by the disastrous record of the outgoing centre-left administration, led by Rosario Crocetta, who had only managed to beat Musumeci on the previous occasion because of a split on the right.
Whilst the Sicilian centre-left took much pride in the election of Sicily’s first openly gay president, his flamboyant and quarrelsome character did a lot of damage to his administration, provoking many resignations by assessori (regional cabinet members), and it was hardly surprising that the PD showed no inclination to indulge his longing to stand for a second term, even if its subsequent choice of the rather grey and bureaucratic Nicari did not improve its chances.
It is worth noting that, although the hard-right Musumeci was the figurehead of the centre-right coalition this year, the two nationally organised hard-right parties supporting him - Giorgia Meloni’s neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega3 - only picked up 5.5% of the vote for their joint list, gaining a mere two seats in the regional assembly. One assumes that Musumeci had some real input into candidate selection for the Lista Musumeci, which gained another 6.1%, but the remaining lists of the centre-right had a rather different character. They were all much closer to Silvio Berlusconi than to Musumeci, who had been imposed on a very reluctant Berlusconi by Salvini and Meloni at the national level as a price for their continuing loyalty to the coalition.
Forza Italia itself obtained 16.4%, whilst the two essentially Christian Democrat lists - Saverio Romano’s Popolari e Autonomisti and Lorenzo Cesa’s Unione di Centro(UdC) - won 7.2% and 7.1% respectively.
It would be extremely naive to interpret this difference in electoral outcomes in conventional terms - to make the assumption that electors much preferred ‘moderates’ who were only slightly to the right of centre to ‘extremists’ on the hard right.
At best, the kind of Sicilian politics associated with such lists could be seen as opportunist and clientelist - the UdC had spent the previous five years supporting Crocetta’s centre-left administration before switching sides to back the centre-right in this year’s election. SomeForza Italiacandidates had previously stood for the PD, and a grand total of 14 of the regional deputies who had supported the Crocetta administration shifted from supporting the ‘ex-communist’ (Crocetta) to the ‘ex-fascist’ (Musumeci) this year.
At worst, these lists had a more sinister character, representing the kind of Sicilian Christian Democracy that had served as the link between Giulio Andreotti and the Mafia in the cold war years. Of course, it is indisputable that the Sicilian Mafia has used its electoral influence to favour Berlusconi and Forza Italia from 1994 onwards. Moreover, on three separate occasions investigating magistrates have opened enquiries into possible links between both Berlusconi and his long-standing henchman, Marcello Dell’Utri - currently serving time for Mafia links - and the Mafia bombings in Sicily and the mainland during 1992-93. The first two investigations were abandoned, but the third and current one is ongoing, even if past experience suggests it is unlikely to get to the bottom of this murky affair.
It was no accident that Totò Cuffaro, a disgraced former president of the Sicilian region, who had spent some years in jail, and consequently had been deprived of the right to vote, made it clear in press interviews that all his relatives would be voting for the centre-right. Raffaele Lombardo, another former president of the Sicilian region (whose six years and eight months sentence for Mafia links had been overturned on appeal, even if he may still serve two years for buying votes), was a candidate in the Popolari e Autonomi list this year.
Perhaps the most notorious case amongst this year’s successful candidates was that of Luigi Genovese, a 21-year-old, who gained nearly 20,000 preference votes in the Messina constituency. This young law student is the son of Francantonio Genovese, who has been sentenced to 11 years for crimes ranging from fraud to money-laundering of EU funds intended for youth training. The younger Genovese boasted of making “a decisive contribution” to Musumeci’s victory, and said:
I am very happy with the result. We have confirmed the votes that my uncle, Franco Rinaldi, took in the regional election of 2012. A sign that the Messinese still have confidence in us and wish us well.4
Needless to say, this uncle has also been convicted in recent criminal proceedings.5 Whilst the misdeeds of the Genovese family got the most press coverage, other such candidates included Antonello Rizza, currently accused in four separate trials on no less than 22 charges.
M5S put an enormous amount of work into the Sicilian election. During the summer, Cancelleri had toured the whole island for weeks in the company of Luigi Di Maio - who has subsequently been elected as M5S’s leader for electoral purposes and M5S candidate for prime minister - and Alessandro Di Battista, who is probably M5S’s most effective orator in the conventional sense of the word, given that Beppe Grillo’s capacity to hold a crowd still relies on a stand-up comedy routine.
This trio returned to the fray in October and early November, engaging in another frantic round of public speaking in the maximum number of localities. Whilst this campaign lacked the drama of Grillo’s swim across the Straits of Messina during the 2012 Sicilian regional campaign, nobody could deny that M5S’s national leadership put much more effort into this election than those of either the centre-left or centre-right, but perhaps the rather low attendance at their meetings, especially during August, should have served as an advance warning that in Sicily silence often counts for more than oratory in election campaigns. Matteo Renzi barely showed his face in Sicily, which probably further weakened the chances of his politically inexperienced candidates. Whilst Berlusconi’s appearance in the last days of the campaign was more melodramatic, it was hardly the decisive factor.
M5S has been accused of being bad losers by mainstream observers for drawing attention to the ‘unpresentables’ both during the campaign and after the result, but there can be no doubt that the Mafia threw its weight onto its opponents’ side.6 The media’s enthusiasm in publicising the fact that one M5S candidate had some sort of spent conviction that had led him to be dismissed from the Carabinieri (militarised police) for falling asleep and failing to turn up at a road block seemed more a bid to trivialise the serious criminality of many centre-right candidates than genuine even-handedness.7
In conclusion, it is clear that the PD’s choice of presidential candidate was a very poor one - an inexperienced, almost apolitical, centrist candidate, without much charisma, could never compete with Musumeci or Cancelleri. However, the PD’s decision to ally with Angelino Alfano’s Alleanza Popolare(AP) was probably its worst error. The Tuscan, Renzi, presumably calculated that the Sicilian, Alfano, had not lost his home base during his years in Rome as interior minister and foreign minister. In the event, AP only scored 4.1% in Sicily, falling beneath the minimum threshold of 5% required to enter the regional assembly.
Whilst Alfano may have chosen to ally himself with Renzi at the national level, he had less control over his Sicilian members than he imagined - a large chunk of prominent Sicilian AP members defected to Musumeci’s camp. Renzi’s decision to ally with Alfano for the Sicilian election was guaranteed to drive the MDP away from any coalition with the PD; indeed, it actually led the MDP to ally not only with SI, but even with the PRC, in this election.
The division on the left - in the context of an island in which in any shape or form it has always been weak - probably increased the rate of abstention, once it became obvious that the real contest was between the centre-right and M5S. Moreover, far more centre-left defectors from Nicari gave their vote in the presidential contest to Cancelleri than to Fava, even if the left presidential candidate’s additional personal vote of about 1% above the Left List (Cento Passi per la Sicilia) is an indication of the respect in which he is held by many serious left and anti-Mafia activists on the island.
1. The complication of the new electoral law - the so-called Rosatellum - will make it very difficult for any party or coalition to win an outright majority.
2. It is likely that a large portion of Cancelleri’s surplus over the M5S list vote came from centre-left voters anxious to prevent a neo-fascist gaining the regional presidency.
3. Matteo Salvini has recently dropped the word Nord from the Lega’s official title in a bid to win votes in the south. Understandably, Umberto Bossi and other veterans of the Lega Lombarda/Lega Nord are far from happy with this change of nomenclature.
4. La Repubblica November 7.
5. Both Genovese senior and Rinaldi deny all wrongdoing, and are appealing against all their convictions. Genovese junior - after emphasising that he was not an ‘unpresentable’, since he had no criminal convictions - claimed that his father was not one either, since he had not received “a definitive sentence” from the Cassazione (supreme court). Genovese junior boasted of “my personal consensus, especially among the young”, but claimed this popularity amongst local youth had absolutely no connection with his father’s use - or alleged misuse - of the EU funds for youth training.
6. The veteran leftwing intellectual, Marco Revelli, speaking at the Marseille European Forum on November 10, had no doubt about the Mafia’s role in this election.
7. Since the election, one unsuccessful M5S candidate has been charged with defrauding at least two employees of the hotel he owns, but on the whole the M5S list seems to have been remarkably clean by Sicilian standards.