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Bread & Circuses - Elections in Sicily
by Maria Luisa Romano

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Buying votes, just like in ancient Rome.Palermo has the distinction of being the only city of western Europe, and perhaps the entire European Union, where votes are allegedly bought by ambitious politicians. Admittedly, most of this exists in the realm of bizarre --yet persistent-- rumour. (More about that in a moment.) Whatever the truth may be, the mere existence of such rumours in a city of almost a million residents in one of the world's most important countries (a bona fide member of the G-8) is, in itself, cause for genuine concern. Let's put it this way: Can you imagine rumours even existing that mayoral candidates in New York, London, Sydney or Tokyo were actually paying poor residents to vote for them or their political parties? And that's the point. In other words, the very idea that tens of thousands of residents would believe that votes literally had been bought is extremely disturbing because it reflects very poorly on the integrity of the voters themselves. And on their level of education. The ancient Romans bought the votes of the plebeian populace with grain or bread. In some ways this still happens in Palermo, Catania, Messina and other Sicilian cities. Before confronting the rumours regarding the most recent elections for Palermo's mayor and city council (May 2007), let's consider what has happened in the past.

Historically, democracy in Sicily has tread a rocky road. Following centuries of harsh feudalism in which only wealthy landholders could vote in the rare election, the "constitutional" monarchy of the Savoys (1861-1946) was hardly democratic; senators were appointed by royal consent and the country was a police state from which dissenters emigrated. After 1922 Fascism made matters even worse, and women voted for the first time only in 1946, and then only because the Allies made it so. (The post-war election poster shown here is deceptive as the Catholic Church did not promote the right of Italy's women to vote before the fall of the monarchy, and many of the candidates of the Christian Democrat party in the late 1940s had been card-carrying Fascists just a few years earlier; in fact Luigi Sturzo's was one of the few Catholic voices openly opposed to Fascism and to Italy's participation in the Second World War.)

In the mid 1990s a mayoral candidate of Palermo (no names here) went into the Borgo Vecchio and ZEN districts during the mid morning of a weekday distributing pamphlets along with packages of pasta and other foodstuffs. Well, youEmotional appeal to woman voters. might ask, who's going to vote for somebody in exchange for a little pasta? A good question, apart from the fact that his election campaigners were actually distributing large boxes of pasta, as well as other foods. The candidate in question was not the first to make use of such a ploy.

The glory days of Italy's "First Republic" (1946-1991) witnessed the routine commitment of votes to the Right (via the Mafia) or the Left (via the labor unions) by the hundreds of thousand, usually enough to swing a senatorial or deputorial (lower parliamentary house) race in a perennially eclectic electorate marked by poverty, high unemployment, poor education and general desperation. (Well into the 1960s a notable factor of the Sicilian economic profile was money sent to Sicilians by their kin living abroad.)

The vote-buying phenomenon shames better-educated Sicilians to the point of denial --at least when they're outside Sicily. Yet it is occasionally reported in the press in Palermo and Catania. In her book Octopus, about the Mafia and politics in Sicily, Claire Sterling describes in some detail the electoral machine that flourished in Sicily in the days of the Christian Democrats. Today's vote-purchasing may be viewed as an outgrowth of that phenomenon.

This relatively recent history, plus the pasta-distributing politicians and general corruption (such as the recent "bus driver scandal") makes it easy to believe almost anything. Indeed, history is on the side of the cynics.

Speaking of history, the infamous referendum of 1860 giving the Savoys' upstart Kingdom of Italy an implausible 99% of the Sicilian vote was fraudulent (see The Fall of the House of Savoy by Robert Katz and the references in The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa), and the referendum of 1946 (ousting the Savoys) was marked by widespread irregularities, so the rigging of elections cannot be said to be a novelty in Italy.

Now let's "fast forward" to April 2006, when rumours spread of candidates paying a hundred euros per family's vote (let's say a husband, wife and two adult children) during the national elections. By 2007, the rewards were higher: a washing machine (actually a voucher for one), valued at around 300 euros, for each family's vote. Incredible? Yes and no. When a candidate for city council tells you that a lady he approached while canvassing his district explained that her vote was already "impegnato" (committed) to another candidate, who paid her thirty euros, it's difficult to dismiss the whole matter as a merely anecdotal piece of Sicilian urban legend. And this candidate's experience is by no means an isolated case. Consider that even if the lady voter in question, in reality, had not already been paid thirty euros (let's say that she said so merely to encourage the canvassing candidate to "outbid" his opponent by offering forty or fifty euros), it still indicates that she was offering her vote for sale to the highest bidder.

This brings us to another important point. How can a candidate know with certainty that a prospective voter, having been paid handsomely to vote for him, actually will? Enter the digital camera or camera-equipped cell phone. Italy has more cell phones per capita than any other major country in the world, and many have built-in cameras. Let's say that the candidate pays 100 euros for a vote. The voter receives 50 euros "upfront" before the election. Following the election, he receives the other 50 upon presenting a digital photo of his ballot. Believe it. In May 2007 there were at least two incidents made public of polling officials having seen voters photographing their ballots. As ballots are effected by pencil in booths enclosed by curtains, it is very possible that hundreds of voters photographed their forms without this being observed by anybody.

This technological approach to vote purchasing all sounds practical, at least in principle. What about buying votes before the age of cell phones? Here's a practice which is still widely employed in Sicily. Italy has dozens of political parties (though there are now two major "coalitions" of parties representing the center-left and center-right), so in a small election district, such as a town or a circoscrizione in a larger city, it's sometimes possible to win a seat with as few as 300 votes, or with a "margin" of victory equal to this number. This may not seem like much until you consider that even Palermo and Catania consist of numerous small districts. A candidate's "agents" might buy an entire district. Bizarre, but in practice it's easier than it sounds. They simply pay a certain number of voters (or a few dozen "opinion leaders" in the district) a "deposit" before the election, let's say 30 euros each, with a promise of more money if the candidate being promoted actually emerges victorious. In this "collective" purchase it is necessary for residents who've already sold their votes to convince others in their neighborhood to do the same, then make the names of all the purchased "supporters" known (as on a list) to the agents purchasing the district on behalf of a candidate. Everybody on the list is then paid once the winning election results are published, with the opinion leaders receiving a special bonus beyond the standard payment. If, instead, the vote-paying candidate loses he pays nobody. This system is crude but functional, and its existence is implicitly acknowledged in a public way when candidates for city council approach community leaders (union representatives, heads of cultural organizations, even parish priests) offering future political favors in exchange for a certain number of votes (usually 200) "delivered." Selling one's vote is not actually illegal.

Now let's talk about rumours, facts and reality. When even a few incidents are exposed the possibility that there are others becomes exponentially greater in the public mind, whether this is justified or not. Such fears reflect credible circumstances. Certain politicians (at a national level) and their supporters could easily afford to spend a few million euros to purchase votes for their cohorts in Sicily, so the economics of purchasing, let's say, ten thousand votes is within the grasp of the greedy. In many cases ten thousand votes is all it takes to win in a district the size of the province of Palermo. The candidates themselves may not be purchasing votes; it is far more likely that the dirty work is being undertaken by affluent supporters. Following the Palermo city elections of May 2007, a box of several hundred ballots, all marked for the same candidate with the same pencil (but not the kind used in the elections), was found hidden in a closet; this is very disturbing.

The precedent of the pasta-for-votes practice and the well-established machinations of the trade unions and organized crime in procuring voter support make it easy to believe anything. Were you to visit Palermo, exploring the expansive, shabby neighborhoods off the tourist path (Borgo Vecchio, ZEN, Via Oreto, Brancaccio, Sperone), you would readily observe that the great majority of Palermitans are not at all prosperous or well-educated; ISTAT (the national statistical institute) regularly refers to the economic "divario" separating Italy's north and south, and in many parts of the city it seems that the majority of adults have not finished secondary school, having left by the age of 14 or 16. (According to recent statistics, for 2005, about 15% of Italian births are to young unwed mothers and this figure is probably higher in Palermo.) Unemployment is rampant. In such an environment the practice of vote-selling is a distinct possibility, whether we like it or not.

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written for various Italian magazines, including this one.

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© 2007 Maria Luisa Romano