Sicilians are going to the polls today in what is the last electoral test before general elections next year.
A right-wing alliance led by three time PM and billionaire tax fraud convict Silvio Berlusconi was seen to be slightly ahead of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement, with the ‘centre-left’ Democrats trailing in third place thanks in part to a left split led by a former PM Pier Luigi Bersani (he’s to the left of former PM and defacto leader Matteo Renzi).
But what of the realities and prospects of Sicily, which perhaps more than the rest of Italy’s south has been ‘left behind’ by market-led austerity policies?
What’s dominated much of the election has been the issue of immigration, pushed hardest by Berlusconi’s Northern League partners and their leader Matteo Salvini. Italy has taken the lion’s share of migrants and they all land in the south.
But the real issue is emigration – in 2016 there 11,501 Sicilians who were recorded on the official register of Italians abroad, a 17% rise on 2015, and separate figures show 21,000 left Sicily for other regions of Italy. Of the 744,035 registrated abroad, 1 in 6 are Sicilian, more than any other region (it is the 4th largest region, by population).
Driving people north is the level of unemployment – double that of the rest of the country and for youngsters a rate of 57%, 17 points higher than elsewhere in Italy. Low pay and poverty are evident in figures that show pro-capita incomes at 21,807 euros, nearly half the 38,000-plus in Bolzano, in the far north. The public sector remains a major employer but of the 17,000 directly employed by the region, around a quarter are on precarious contracts.
At the source of jobless crisis is a drastic fall in Italian public spending that was slashed in the 1990s in preparation for entry into the Single Euro Currency. This hit particularly hard in the South, where private investment has always been lower than the north, particularly hard. True, between 1994 through to 2020 some 30 billion euros of EU structural funds will have disbursed, but they fall substantially short of the loss of funding from Rome and impact on private investment of deflationary policies imposed by Euro-club membership.
Money is of course very badly spent, due to wide-scale corruption, legendary in the land of the Cosa Nostra and a decadent ruling class, who absorbed and co-opted successive administrations from the Christian Democrats of the 1950-80s, to the centre-left.
Some are putting their hopes that there could be a break from the past if the Five Star movement secures control of the regional government. One of the movement’s more popular policies is a 780 euro/month guaranteed universal income, a version of which earlier this year it was trialling in Ragusa, a city it runs. It has also come up with innovative proposals to convert the island dependence on carbon-based to green energy.
But its hard line position on immigration has alienated many on the left, and a softening of its stance on calling a referendum of EU membership risks leaving it indistinct from the pro-Euro political mainstream.
If Five Star’s Giancarlo Cancelleri has a fair shot at winning, the same cannot be said for Claudio Flava, Bersani’s local man for an slightly more palatable version of the Democrats, whose pro-business, anti-worker policies cannot put them in the centre-left camp any more; they are trailing at about 4% in the polls.
What’s for sure, a victory for Berlusconi – forever the salesman, with promises of a 2 billion euro ‘Marshall Plan for Sicily’ – or the Democrats, ruling disastrously under Rosario Crocetta since 2012, cannot be better outcomes. .