'Crime-fighting' Italian populists pin national hopes on Sicily win

Bagheria (Italy) (AFP) –


The unauthorised houses on Bagheria's beaches boast one of Sicily's most alluring views, but their fate has become a hot topic in an election overshadowed by the whiff of corruption.

The Italian island heads to the polls Sunday for a regional vote seen as a bellwether for general elections in spring, with the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) going head-to-head with a resurgent centre-right.

But for the M5S to win its first region, the movement founded on a pledge of honesty needs to convince Sicilians it is not tainted by the same allegations of crookedness dogging the main parties.

That is exactly what M5S mayor Patrizio Cinque is attempting to do in Bagheria, near Palermo, a picturesque town where campaigns against illegal housing and rubbish tipping are fought alongside the war on the mafia.

Police this week arrested 16 local gangsters, including a boss who ordered his daughter's death for dating a cop.

The issue now, however, is not Cosa Nostra's in-house vendettas but whether the organised crime group -- nicknamed "the octopus" -- has the regional elections in its tentacled grip.

"The facts show an ever greater number of people entering politics that have run-ins with the law," said prosecutor Ambrogio Cartosio, who in 35 years has seen politicians involved in everything from embezzlement to murder.

In Sicily, in particular, "I believe the mafia presence in the political sphere is much greater than before," he told AFP.

- Vote buying -

This election has its fair share of so-called "unpresentables" running across the political spectrum -- candidates under investigation for corruption, charged with ties to the mafia, or standing trial for vote buying.

In Palermo, considered the seat of the oldest parliament in the world and where street signs are in Italian, Hebrew and Arabic, campaigning is at fever pitch.

Nello Musumeci, lead candidate for Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Go Italy party, has attempted to distance himself from the tainted hopefuls on his electoral list -- particularly one who has been charged with 22 crimes in four trials.

Berlusconi himself was dragged into the mire this week after prosecutors said he was under investigation -- for the third time -- for alleged involvement in mafia bombings in 1993.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is likely to lose control of the region, has largely escaped the long arm of the law, though its candidate Fabrizio Micari has enlisted the support of smaller, less clean lists.

The M5S, under Giancarlo Cancelleri, has urged the OSCE to monitor the vote, after Italy's anti-mafia commission said it could not ensure the lists were corruption-free in time.

The threat of vote-buying is real: close to two million Italians have been offered money, favours or gifts on at least one occasion for their votes, the national statistics agency said in October.

- Mafia tears -

In a bid to break the cycle, the M5S has promised to bring in an "extremely harsh" anti-corruption law if it wins -- but as Cinque knows, vowing to remain incorruptible is easy, while keeping your name off suspect lists is less so.

The M5S mayor, who has sworn the demolition diggers will head first for mafia-owned properties among the 8,000 illegal homes in Bagheria -- is under investigation for alleged abuse of power and tender rigging, charges he denies.

He points to turncoat Pasquale Di Salvo, who told police the mafia suffered Cinque's arrival in Bagheria because it stripped it of valuable businesses, like the garbage sector, and left it with "nothing but eyes to cry".

Annoy enough powerful people and you risk more than a bit of mud-slinging, the mayor says. "If you have the courage to make changes in an area like this, you have to know the prosecutor's office might start investigating you".

Cinque, 32, believes someone hopes to vilify M5S ahead of the vote.

Cartosio, who heads up the investigation into Cinque, cannot speak about the case.

But he agrees the judicial spotlight intensifies as elections near.

"Numerous anonymous accusations denouncing real or supposed crimes land on prosecutors' desks," he says.

Whether the investigations that ensue help to boost voters' faith in clean politics is less than clear.

"Sicily has many problems," from widespread poverty to a youth unemployment rate of nearly 60 percent, says pensioner Giuseppe, who did not want to give his full name.

"But I am convinced that all those who get into power end up eating their fill, there's not one who doesn't," he said.