Politics in Italy: The Sicilian connection

In what may foreshadow Italy's Spring general election, Sicily's recent elections were fought out between Berlusconi's centre-right and the Five Star populists of Beppe Grillo. And guess what? Berlusconi is back

A taste of Sicily
Tim Hedges
On 12 November 2017 13:23

Sicily has recently been to the vote, for its parliament and its president. It is an autonomous region of Italy and thus pretty well manages its own affairs.

The island’s population of 5 million, around 8 percent of the Italian population, means that for many commentators this is a taster for the general election which will probably be in the spring.

Despite being Italy’s poorest region, between the war and 2012 the island has been run by the centre-right, it being generally conservative and catholic. For the last five years however it has had a centre-left administration.

Would the Sicilians remain with the centre left, it is after all very poor, or would it go against the status quo? The answer is emphatically the latter. It turned out to be a race between the centre-right (Berlusconi) group and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo.

In the end Berlusconi’s group, led by Nello Musumeci, won out, with 40% of the vote against 35% for Five Star. The ruling Democratic Party (ruling in the country as well as in Sicily) came nowhere with less than 19%.

Sicily’s appalling demographics can be seen in the voting: 4.6 million were able to vote out of a population of just over 5 million, which means those under 18 were less than 10% of the population. In the UK it is double that.

And those able to vote were disenchanted. Turnout was less than half. There was a call to the island’s famous residents to support a campaign to get people out to the polls. One of them, singer and TV host Rosario Fiorello simply replied ‘Politics has never changed anything here, and this time it won’t be any different.’

What will the new government of Mr. Musumeci have on its plate? Migration is the first thing. I use that term because Sicily has very high rates of immigration (North Africans, mainly) and high rates of emigration (young skilled people who cannot find work). It is the departure of the brightest and best which most urgently needs to be tackled. But there was no sign in the campaign that anyone knew what to do about it.

Unemployment is next. Sicily’s unemployment at 22% is nearly double the national average. Even worse, youth unemployment is more than 50%. Most Sicilian politicians think this can be solved by state spending, but here we come up against the third problem for Musumeci: the already bloated public sector.

Nobody knows how many public employees there are, or where or if they work. Sicily’s government consists of the president and parliament, beneath which there are 9 regions, each with its own bureaucracy, elected officials, employees and hangers on, subservient to which are 390 comunes, again each with its own layer of elected officialdom and administration.

Italy had planned to get rid of provinces but the Sicilians refused, obviously thinking they would be dangerously under-governed.  Sicily, with 8% of the population probably has about a quarter of the total of Italy’s state employees and a third of the managers. With the over-regulation (all these managers have to do something) and corruption, Sicily’s ranks 237th for competitiveness out of 263 European regions.

So of course there is debt: €8 billion of it plus €5 billion of mortgages; debt which Sicily cannot hope to repay. Debt per capita, at €1,583, is 45% higher than the national average, which is itself high.

The one good thing going for Mr. Musumeci is that he will find on his desk a cheque for €17.6 billion from the EU in structural funds. Sicily will have received around €30 billion between 1994 and 2020, not including agricultural subsidies. Where it has all gone is anybody’s guess. But this may be the end of the handouts.

In the election campaign Silvio Berlusconi, who campaigned like a man 40 years younger, knew the way to Sicilian hearts. He promised the abolition of car taxes, a casino in Taormina and a bridge to the mainland costing €10 billion in mafia controlled cement. Easy win.

So the elections have had their results. For the Democrats a disaster which already has people questioning Matteo Renzi’s leadership. For the 5 Star a boost: it has performed strongly and has shown it is not a flash in the pan. For Silvio Berlusconi a massive triumph putting him back in line for government.

For Nello Musumeci, however, a series of bad headaches.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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