Beppe Grillo: comedian turned politician. Photo: Giorgio Brida under a CC License.
It was a steaming Sicilian summer night in 2007 and Mayor Rosario Crocetta had decided to get out of his bulletproof car and do a walkabout after a packed mayoral election rally in the Sicilian coastal town of Gela. He didn’t look nervous, although his bodyguards formed a tight circle around us while I interviewed him. Just a year or so previously the local mafia had hired an assassin to finish him off during a religious street procession – one of three unsuccessful attempts.
When I met Crocetta it was his second bid to become mayor. The first time around the local mafia rigged the election. Tapped phone conversations recorded a local mafia boss ordering an electoral returning officer to ‘move heaven and earth to stop the communist faggot from winning.’ Eventually the foul-play was proved and the result was overturned.
In 2007 he was re-elected easily with nearly 65 per cent of the vote. ‘Gela ti ama!’ (Gela loves you!) some people shouted as he made his speech in the main piazza, impossibly exposed on a raised stage. Enthusiasm for politics and a politician wasn’t something I’d experienced before in Sicily.
Rosario Crocetta is an openly gay, anti-mafia and anti-corruption politician. During his time as mayor he supported local businesses and shops when they refused to pay the ‘pizzo’ or protection money. He used to be a Communist Party candidate, but for the Sicilian elections, earlier this month, he caused some controversy by joining up with a coalition of larger parties. That decision, and of course his reputation for integrity, paid off. In a result that would have seemed laughable a few years ago, Crocetta went on to become governor of the Sicilian region in October.
Many Sicilians seem to consider themselves to be living in the ‘Global South.’ I have heard the comment ‘you know, you’re in Africa here’ said in many a bar conversation. When encountering anything from poorly funded services to evidence of corruption they just shrug and say: ‘Pazienza’ (Patience). Like in Britain, election turnout was low in 2012 after serial corruption scandals. Those who did vote thrashed Berlusconi’s party. Sicily is a former Berlusconi stronghold. His conviction of tax evasion a few days after came as no surprise whatever to Sicilians. Something else is happening in Sicily I thought I’d never see: challengers to the status quo and the traditional party dominance are rising.
The other big surprise is the extraordinary success of the Five Star Movement, an online, anti-corruption party led by comedian Beppe Grillo. With minimal funds and online campaigning only, his party won the popular vote, became Sicily’s biggest party and now has 15 seats in Sicily’s parliament. The party promises to return a proportion of over-inflated politicians’ salaries to Sicilians, has challenged big businesses on tax and accountability, and is passionate about shareholder democracy and the environment.
Critics say the Five Star Movement is a flash in the pan. Mainstream parties may be telling themselves that Grillo’s phenomenal regional success will not be reflected in the general election result. But I bet they’re also losing sleep wondering how some of them got left behind in such a spectacular way by this new party leader who makes jokes for a living. And how a ‘communist faggot’ from Gela managed to become Sicily’s governor.
The truth is that, like in many other European countries, previously dominant parties are becoming irrelevant. They have come to represent narrow and specific corporate interests.
But politics can be revived. The current economic climate needs political parties with a real counter-narrative, advocating real alternatives. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement poses a real challenge to mainstream politics and may go on to unseat MPs in the April general elections.
Italians’ anger and sense of injustice at high level corruption and systemic double standards are like the genie that won’t go back into the bottle. The rest of Europe will be watching the Italian national elections in the spring with unprecedented interest. wondering to what extent these recent results in Sicily will prove to be a turning point for political change.