Sicily's other story

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The local elections across Italy on 28-29 May 2006 saw significant successes for representatives of the country's centre-left government elected in the general election of 9-10 April. The voters of Rome, Turin, and Naples, for example, re-elected their leftwing mayors into office. Sicily's regional election, however, produced a different outcome. There, the centre-left candidate (and sister of a renowned investigator murdered by the mafia in 1992) Rita Borsellino was defeated by the incumbent rightwing president, Salvatore (Totò) Cuffaro, who himself is under investigation for mafia links. Is this a confirmation that democracy is a hostage to darker forces in Italy's south?

The atmosphere was certainly different from the relatively recent past. Sicily's vote was not preceded by church sermons warning parishioners of the consequences of voting the "wrong" way. No nuns arrived at the houses of voters burdened with money, pasta or gifts, as had occurred in the immediate post-war years when the mafia, the church and the United States had collaborated to exclude Italy's large communist party from office. Nor were there the killings or the other forms of mafia violence which had accompanied previous elections on this beautiful, complex and troubled island.

Yet this election victory – which saw Cuffaro win 52.2% of the vote against 43% for Borsellino, with a particularly strong showing in cities (most of all Catania) – was indeed "bought" by the system of favours, promises of work and "clientilism" that brought Cuffaro to power in 2001 and is still the dominant political tradition in Sicily. In the town of Agrigento, I even heard (while I could not substantiate) claims that in some cases payments of up to €250 euros – a significant increase on previous "fees", if confirmed – were delivered to electors supporting candidates of the right.

This system, with or without cases of direct bribery, has been given new legitimacy over the last five years by the culture of illegality that characterised Silvio Berlusconi's period of office. It has been evident that the corruption and clientilism of old Sicily has become modern Italy's problem. The Tangentopoli del Calcio (as La Repubblica described the corruption scandal involving Juventus and other soccer teams) is only the latest evidence of the serious malaise that has engulfed Italian society, polity and public life. It is one of the most grotesque anomalies of contemporary Italy that Berlusconi can proclaim himself to be the victim of voting irregularities and to warn against the threat to democracy represented by the incoming government. In recycling the slogan "no taxation without representation" he has even threatened to "take to the streets".

However, the corruption of traditional Sicily is a labyrinth (and Cuffaro, the candidate whose posters announce that he "loves Sicily and Sicilians", is very much of the "'old Sicilian" school of politics) whose routes and mentalities are deeply embedded in Sicilian culture. None of it was evident in the Sicilian election analysis on TV, where the pomposity of psephologists (who reduced the issue to national trends or split voting) was matched only by the timidity of the TV journalists (who seemed incapable of asking the real questions). It all made you want to return to the analysis of Leonardo Sciascia, who wrote with unmatched insight of the Sicilian predicament, of the intricacies of power, and of the complex identity of its citizens in a land which seems to have known only domination.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005)


Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:

"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)

"Bossi’s – and Berlusconi’s – last shout?" (August 2003)

"Bologna’s lesson for London" (August 2005)

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy’s election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)

"Berlusconi’s bitter legacy" (March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (March 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (April 2006)

This background may help explain an ostensible conundrum: how Salvatore Cuffaro gets re-elected. This, after all, is an island crippled by economic insecurity whence young people leave for the mainland in droves; where Cuffaro, a doctor by profession, is involved with many private medical practices supported by public money even as there are serious concerns about the condition of local hospitals and health care; where he is reputedly close to Michele Aiello, the former representative of now imprisoned mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano.

There were some answers in Agrigento – a town notable for its beautiful Greek temples, as the birthplace of Luigi Pirandello, and (more recently) as a poor community devastated by mafia interests. Here, a young official of the Guardia di Finanza, speaking outside the graceful palazzo which houses his office in Via Atenea, told me of his despair at not being able to do his job properly. "I took this post after 1992 (the year when two anti-mafia magistrates Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone lost their lives) because I wanted to do something". He was sent first to Puglia, where he was involved in operations against local mafia dealings in contraband cigarettes and drugs, and saw friends and colleagues needlessly lose their lives at 20 years of age.

Yet, since his transfer to Agrigento, the official has himself wasted several years stuck in an office answering the phone, a situation he attributes to a senior police administration suffused with mafia associations, and a corresponding culture of omertà (the honour-based Sicilian code of conduct, which can endorse silence in the face of law). He tells me that a system of "protection" is rife in local shops – "'they all know the names" – but that no action is taken. He is not surprised when I tell him of the €250 rumour but has little confidence it will come to light.

He is also very pessimistic about the possibility of real change. He thinks that the capture of Bernardo Provenzano on the day after Romano Prodi's narrow election victory should be seen not as a great triumph but as the culmination of years of failure (Provenazno had been a fugitive for almost forty-three years), and a recognition of the complicity of politicians in the mafia's resilient power networks. He even quotes a famous line from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) at me: "If we want everything to stay the same, then everything must change". The same families run everything just as they have for years. "Nobody leaves Agrigento", he says.

Another story

But it is not – quite – the same old story. There is "another story", to quote Rita Borsellino's own election slogan. Her campaign was also a significant departure from the past, in three respects.

First, she managed to keep the party apparatchiks of the centre-left at bay. She was elected as the official candidate in the primary elections held in December 2005. This was despite Francesco Rutelli's centrist La Margherita (Daisy) group supporting a rival candidate (and former Cuffaro supporter): Ferdinando Latteri, dean of the University of Catania. Borsellino's list of nominees for office had she won did not include any party politicians.

Second, Borsellino's political roots lie in civil-society and activist "associations" rather than in the political parties. After the murder of her brother Paolo, she worked in a range of bodies promoting anti-mafia education. In 1995, she founded the association Libera, to spread anti-mafia culture amongst young people. In the December primary election, she succeeded in mobilising significant sections of civil society in Sicily, including a network of mainland-based Sicilian students who returned on the "Rita Express" to help her latest campaign. Their slogan was "not returning to vote, but voting to return" – an expression of solidarity with their island and commitment to live there if there was a major change in its economic, political and cultural life.

Third, the Borsellino campaign had a measured impact on the behaviour of the political parties. This was evident in Palermo, where Borsellino received strong support from notable figures like Leoluca Orlando, the anti-mafia mayor whose "Palermo spring" of the 1980s was one precedent of the Borsellino effect. In Agrigento, an enormous array of small parties (though not the Democratici di Sinistra [Democrats of the Left / DS] or La Margherita, though they too supported the challenger) mobilised under a "unity for Sicily" banner. One of the organisers, Giuseppe Taibi, a local lawyer with a passion for Pirandello, told me of his delight at Borsellino's candidature, which he saw as the most encouraging development in Sicily for fifteen years. The optimism in the local campaign office seemed to defy the realities of political life in Agrigento.

Gigi Restivo, centre-left mayor of nearby Raculmuto (once the hometown of Leonardo Sciascia) also talks positively of the Borsellino effect in his small town of 10,000 people. He reminded me of Sciascia's hope that, beneath the web of power and intrigue that masks Sicilian life, amongst the people there was a latent belief in truth and justice.

This is a potent legacy of Borsellino's campaign. The need for justice and an ethical change in the governing mentality of the island – in "Cuffarismo", the latest manifestation of old Sicily's political culture – was a prominent theme in the language of her political campaign. Totò Cuffaro is currently being investigated for tipping off a mafioso that his phone conversations were being recorded by the police. Borsellino has made clear that these charges should be treated as "very serious" and that he should stand down if proceedings continue. This position is supported by Claudio Fava, a local European MP, though it is rejected by other politicians of the left who want to distance Sicilian politics from the taint of mafia charges.

In the aftermath of Rita Borsellino's electoral defeat, even some of her supporters will argue that she needed the experience of the established parties. This ignores the ground she made in mobilising a new generation of activists. Perhaps more importantly, the major questions of ethics and justice she raised during this election campaign are now concerns that the centre-left Italian government in Rome must itself confront over the next years.