Today’s Sicilian elections showcase potential party strength before 2013 Italian election

Today, one of Italy’s most iconic regions — Sicily — goes to the polls to elect the 90 members of its regional legislature and, indirectly, a new regional president.

For all the beauty of its landscape, the majesty of its architecture and the divinity of its food and wine, Sicily, the home of the well known Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian organized crime group that has become synonymous with the word mafia, is not the world’s model showcase for good governance.

Sunday’s elections come six month early after the resignation on July 31 of regional president Raffaele Lombardo, who was elected overwhelmingly in 2008, but stepped down under a cloud of corruption — depressingly familiar charges of complicity with the Sicilian mafia.  The election also comes as a bit of a dress rehearsal for Italy’s expected upcoming general election (along with early elections expected soon in Lombardy as well) — just a couple days after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction in a Milan court for tax fraud.

Rosario Crocetta (pictured above, top), the leading leftist candidate for president and the mafia-fighting former mayor of Gela (Sicily’s sixth-largest city) would be Sicily’s first openly-gay regional president and has campaign marks the best chance of the center-left in a generation to govern Sicily.  But polling nearly as well as the broad center-right and the center-left is the new anti-austerity protest party, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, Five Star Movement) of blogger and comedian Beppe Grillo — he made a splash by swimming across the Strait of Messina from the Italian peninsula to Sicily at the beginning of the campaign (pictured above, bottom).

In one way or another, each of the five main parties competing in today’s election in Sicily will be able to pull lessons from the result in advance of national elections that, although just six months away, remain incredibly fluid.

Italy’s technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, who was appointed in November 2011 to push through budget, tax and labor reforms in the midst of an Italian sovereign debt crisis, remains popular, but has said he won’t run in his own right for election (although could remain available to head a future technocratic government).

Berlusconi had pledged as recently as last Wednesday that he would not run for prime minister as the leader of his own center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), though the unpredictable former prime minister has already said he plans on staying in politics to some degree.  Yesterday, in a Nixonesque, hourlong rant, the enraged, newly-convicted Berlusconi hinted he might even try to bring down Monti’s government to bring forward a snap election even sooner, lashing out at Monti, German chancellor Angela Merkel, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and a ‘judge-ocracy’ that he says is ruling Italy.  With plenty of money and control over Italy’s private media, he’ll be able to influence politics as long as he wants.  Currently, the PdL secretary is Angelino Alfano, a 41-year-old former justice minister who is from Sicily and rising star who’s thought to be the leading contender to lead the PdL into the next general election.

Meanwhile, the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) expects to choose its candidate for prime minister in November.

With 5 million people, Sicily features just around 8.5% of Italy’s total population.  Despite a national GDP per capita of around $31,000, Sicily’s is something like $19,000, vying for Italy’s poorest region with a handful of other southern provinces — it’s nearly half the GDP per capita of the richest province, Lombardy (around $39,000).

In the prior regional elections in 2008, Lombardo led a center-right coalition that included the PdL, the Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Center), remains of what used to be the once-formidable Christian Democratic party and his own regionalist Movimento per le Autonomie (MpA, Movement for Autonomies) and together won 65.4% of the vote and 61 of the 90 seats in Sicily’s regional parliament.  A PD-led leftist coalition, headed by Anna Finocchiaro, won just 29 seats at 30.4% of the vote.  The vast majority of the seats (80) will be chosen by proportional representation, with a 5% threshold for winning seats; an additional 10 members are elected with a block-voting system.

In today’s regional elections, though, there are five coalitions/parties, each fielding its own candidate for regional president — polls are hard to come by, but it’s a bit of a free-for-all.

Near the top of the polls is the PdL coalition, headed by Sebastiano ‘Nello’ Musumeci.  Musumeci, a member of the European Parliament, is himself a member of a small autonomist right-wing party in Sicily, Alleanza Siciliana (Sicilian Alliance), having his roots in the now-defunct National Alliance, a stridently right-wing party which had neofascist roots.  Although he’s not actually a member of the PdL, a broad win for Musumeci would bolster the PdL nonetheless and, in particular, boost Alfano’s chances of leading the PdL into the next elections — despite record-low polling for the PdL nationally, Alfano would be attempting to become Italy’s first Sicilian prime minister since Mario Scelba led the Italian government from 1954 to 1955.

Also at the top of the tolls is Crocetta’s PD-led coalition (also supported by the UdC).  Crocetta’s election would be historic in at least two ways.  

First, his election would mark the second openly gay leftist regional president in Italy’s south (joining the openly gay president of Puglia, Nichi Vendola) and the first-ever in Sicily.  Aside from a brief stint from 1998 to 2000, Sicily has essentially never had a leftist regional government in power, so a win by Crocetta’s coalition would be nearly historic news for Italy’s center-left.  Crocetta, who is also a member of the European Parliament, is widely respected as a politician above corruption, but Sicily remains a culturally conservative region of a strongly Catholic and culturally conservative country, so it remains to be seen whether an openly gay man can actually become the regional president.  Crocetta, for his part, has pledged to give up sex if elected!

No one really knows how well the Five Star Movement and its regional president candidate, Giancarlo Cancellieri, will do today, as this is the first significant electoral test for the party, which could play a spoiler role not just in Sicily but throughout Italy.  It’s also uncertain whether the Five Star Movement would join a center-left governing coalition in Sicily, although it seems very unlikely it would join a Musumeci-led government.

Meanwhile, Lombardo’s own party has suffered so much following his resignation that it has been renamed for the election as the Partito die Siciliani (PdS, Party of the Sicilians).  Gianfranco Micciché, a former minister of development and deputy minister for the economy in Berlusconi’s government leads a coalition of Sicilianist parties.  Micciché is a member of the Grande Sud (GS, Great South) coalition that includes several southern autonomist parties in Campania, Puglia and Sicily — it mirrors in some ways the Lega Nord (Northern League) of northeastern Italy in that it’s ideologically center-right, highly populist and very much regionalist.  A better-than-expected showing for Micciché would signal resilience for Southern autonomist parties, although it would be expected that Micciché would back Musumeci for regional president in any coalition.

Finally, Vendola’s own radical leftist movement, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom) and some other leftist parties are supporting Giovanna Marano for regional president — Marano is a Sicilian trade union leader.  Marano’s coalition could be expected to support a government headed by Crocetta.

For a long time, Sicily has been essentially a vote bank for the Italian right, first for the old Christian Democratic party that dominated Italian government from 1945 through 1993, and then for Berlusconi’s PdL, although those votes have often come in exchange for a cozy and unsavory alliance with various mafia figures in Sicily.  In the last Italian general election, for example, Berlusconi’s PdL won 28 out of Sicily’s 52 seats, and his autonomist allies won four seats, taking over 54% of the vote together.  By contrast, former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, leading the PD-led coalition won just under 29% and 16 seats. Notably, the UdC, led by Pier Ferdinando Casini, won 9.4% — nearly double its support level nationally — and five seats.  Although the ‘Christian Democrat’ brand has been mostly toxic since a corruption scandal in 1992 and 1993 that brought down nearly all of Italy’s political elite, it retains more popularity in Sicily than elsewhere.

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