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In search of a normal country

Geoff Andrews
5 April 2006

"What we need after Berlusconi is a boring, serious leader. I said to Prodi before the first ‘face-to-face’ TV debate: ‘Romano, I hope you will be very boring. If the programme is boring, then you will win. That is what happened. After the programme he sent an SMS thanking me’."

The speaker is Leoluca Orlando, who is standing in the Italian election of 9-10 April 2006 for Antonio Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party, a component of the centre-left Unione coalition. The former mayor of Palermo, Sicily’s capital, believes it is important that the style as well as the substance of the opposition is distinct from that of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The task of the centre-left, he told me, should be to build a culture of "normal politics": "Too many centre-left leaders are trying to copy Berlusconi. We don’t want a carbon copy of Berlusconi. We need an alternative; we need to confront serious problems with serious arguments."

Orlando governed Palermo during some of its toughest times in the mid-1980s, and again in the aftermath of the murders in 1992 of anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. He sees similarities between the situation of Sicily and that of Italy as a whole; after five years of Berlusconi Italy, like Sicily, is in need of new political ethics, based on transparency, trust, legality and participatory forms of citizenship. In these years of endemic corruption, patronage and entropy, Sicily’s longstanding problems have become those of Italy itself.

Orlando’s own background suggests that he will not underestimate what he sees as a cultural and systemic battle. In the mid-1980s, after he had been ostracised by Giulio Andreotti’s Christian Democrats (DC), he led an alliance of left movements and parties on a project to clear Palermo of the influence of the mafia. What became known as the "Palermo spring" led to a new optimism that the mafia could be defeated, while opening new spaces for new anti-mafia networks in civil society.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1992 murders, Orlando faced some of the most difficult times of his life. Sent to stay in a police barracks for protection, after it was suggested he was next on the mafia hit-list, he became known as the "walking corpse". Yet he survived and his reforms flourished: public-sector contracts previously given to mafia families were rescinded, public buildings were restored and reopened, and leading mafiosi, such as Salvatore Riina, were arrested and put on trial.

Indeed, the early 1990s was the most crucial period in recent Italian history. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union led to the end of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), while the tangentopoli (bribesville) scandal of 1992-94 brought about the downfall of the Christian Democrats. Orlando himself had left the DC and set up his own new democratic and anti-corruption movement, La Rete (the network). Although it was a short-lived initiative, it brought together a broad collection of groups and individuals committed to democratic reform.

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)

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La Rete concerned itself with what Orlando calls the "moral questions" in Italian politics, including the need to confront corruption and reform the political culture. In this respect the group shared a similar political space for reform as the pathbreaking mani pulite ("clean hands") investigations by magistrates, led by Antonio Di Pietro. For Orlando, these moral questions have taken on a new urgency given the "culture of illegality" that has characterised the Berlusconi era.

The campaign trail

Indeed, Orlando now sees strong parallels between his attempts to reform Sicilian politics and the wider battle to clean up Italian politics. He believes that the old Sicilian mafia has lost its "cultural hegemony" but has been succeeded by a new mafia. This is a mafia embroiled in global trade such as hard drugs, prostitution, and a flourishing illegal economy. It has been given legitimacy by a new contemporary language of illegality; what he calls "richness without respect and competition without rules". Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, he told me, is "culturally, exactly what this new mafia needs". In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2004, he had even described Berlusconi as the new "godfather".

However, by this he did not mean that Berlusconi orchestrated secret meetings with mafia bosses in the way that Giulio Andreotti, Italy’s six-times prime minister is widely alleged to have done, or for which Salvatore (Toto) Cuffaro, the current president of the Sicilian regional government, is currently being investigated. Rather it was a culture of illegality which gave the green light to the illegal economy. That illegality has now become "convenient".

When I meet him, Orlando is in the midst of a punishing schedule of election meetings on a hot afternoon in Palermo. As we set off from Villa Virgina, his palatial family home in the centre of the city (which also houses the Sicilian Renaissance Institute, the body he set up in 1999 to promote a culture of legality), he tells me of his hopes of a double breakthrough as the national elections are followed in May by a crucial regional showdown in Sicily. His election slogan is Torna la Primavera (Spring Returns) – an attempt to evoke the early 1990s spirit of reform. The Vucciria, the fish-market in the centre of old Palermo – a no-go area in the 1980s – is covered with his election posters.

Orlando’s first stop is the Astoria Hotel for a meeting of the CGIL, Italy’s largest trade-union federation, where he makes a three-minute intervention in the middle of a discussion about economic insecurity. He repeats his anecdote about Prodi, announces that he will stand again for mayor of Palermo and urges the eighty delegates to keep the faith for the forthcoming national elections: "we will win". After warm applause and a few handshakes his entourage, including driver and bodyguard (and author in tow), is on its way again.

Next stop is the Trattoria Da Nicolo in Mondello, Palermo’s beach area. This is a different kind of meeting and Orlando has to tackle a few awkward questions on immigration and the state of the local piazza before sharing a brindisi (toast) with fifteen or so supporters.

As we travel back to the city centre, Orlando tells me of his delight at the candidature of Rita Borsellino the centre-left candidate for regional president of Sicily. Here is a figure who stands in sharp contrast to Salvatore Cuffaro, one free of the old politics of corruption. As the sister of murdered magistrate Paolo, she is the symbol of resistance, a historic reference-point of an enduring battle with the mafia. She has already received the backing of a new, younger network of supporters, committed to a new dialogue between the political parties and civil society.

A new project

The following day I am in Acireale, a beautiful baroque and former Roman spa centre, perched high above the shore and in the shadow of Mount Etna, on Sicily’s east coast, when Toto Cuffaro arrives in town, preceded by a well-rehearsed stream of the local UDC hierarchy and accompanied by a cluster of men in dark suits and four police cars. In a carefully stage-managed affair he deals comfortably with questions from local journalists about his election campaign. He is delighted to be back in Acireale, quietly confident about the forthcoming general election and, no, he doesn’t take too much notice of opinion polls. He is softly spoken, courteous and charming, kissing the hand of the reporter from Italia 7 when she tells him what a pleasure it is to see him (such is the nature of Italian journalism under Berlusconi).

Watching Cuffaro in action, seducing his supporters and reacquainting himself with old friends (he is rumoured to have an elephantine memory for names), it is easy to see why many people are sceptical that Sicily can change. I am reminded of what Leoluca Orlando had said to me the previous day. For Orlando, Cuffaro typified the old Sicilian politics of the disgraced Christian Democrats: "If he meets Michele Aiello (one of Sicily’s richest entrepreneurs and alleged representative of Bernardo Provenzano, the leader of Cosa Nostra who has been on the run for forty-three years), then why is it in the back of a shop in Bagheria (on the outskirts of Palermo) and not in the office of the Sicilian president in Palazzo d’Orleans?"

Also in openDemocracy on Italy under Silvio Berlusconi:

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy’s tragic democracy" (August 2005)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush…" (February 2006)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (April 2005)

Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?" (March 2006)

He continued: "Normal politics needs to say that you cannot be a candidate because you are a friend of a mafia boss. I don’t care if you can speak of Mozart and Bach, you cannot be a normal politician if you have dinner with a mafia boss. You can speak of Mozart and Bach, but you cannot be my representative."

There was not much sign of normal politics in Acireale. Anyone looking for life beyond the Berlusconi coalition would have had to settle for Nanni Moretti’s film, Il Caimano (The Cayman), currently showing at the Margherita Multisala. Elsewhere, election posters on show were dominated by various parties of the right. These were not normal parties and seemed to come in two categories; ex-fascist and fascist, or those like the UDC which represented the old rump of the Christian Democrats and whose leading local representatives were facing serious allegations of mafia association. Later that evening, Alessandra Mussolini was due to speak in nearby Catania. Her line-up of proud and unrepentant fascists included Roberto Fiore, who had been under investigation for the Bologna bombing on 2 August 1980 (Italy’s worst post-war terrorist attack) and who had spent his years of exile working in a London travel agency.

The distribution of the vote in Sicily will go some way to determining Italy’s future. In the 2001 election, Berlusconi’s coalition won all sixty-one parliamentary seats. This will not be possible under the new proportional electoral system and although the right is still expected to get a higher percentage of the vote, it could be tight. Orlando believes the Unione can get around 45% of the vote in Sicily; a result which would, he feels, provide the springboard for a successful campaign for Rita Borsellino in Sicily’s regional elections. Orlando’s search for normality in Italian politics, however, has a long way to go. Like Prodi, he is a firm believer in a new "Democratic Party", though he is determined this must not be the property of party leaders.

Orlando’s decision to stand for election on the Di Pietro ticket was taken after a falling out with Francesco Rutelli, leader of the centrist La Margherita (Daisy) party, over which candidate to support in the Sicilian regional poll. He suspects that Rutelli’s objective – which he does not share – is to win over the UDC to the new project. Instead, he draws on the experience of the two primaries which endorsed first Prodi and then Borsellino as respective centre-left leaders in Italy and Sicily.

These were important, he says, because they "brought together the parties and the professors" and, for the first time, allowed a variety of groups in civil society to participate in the project of the centre-left. Orlando, who puts over a stronger sense of what is wrong with Italy than other centre-left leaders, says that Italy must continue on this path if it is to have any chance of becoming a normal country.

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