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Who runs Sicily?
by Maria Luisa Romano

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Sicilian colors and symbol.Who's in charge? In Sicily, where street protests and strikes are the order of the day, where organized crime and political corruption go hand in hand and sometimes run amok, where public services and education (including the universities) often seem mediocre at best, it is a very good question. Let's attempt an answer.

We should begin by establishing that Sicily has been a "semi-autonomous" region of Italy since 1946. During his brief reign, King Umberto II signed the decree just a few weeks before the referendum that made the nation a republic. The king was "encouraged" by the occupying Allies. Aosta and several other regions would follow this course, effectively "federalizing" the state the Savoys and Garibaldi had created.

Italy has twenty geopolitical "regions," Sicily being the largest in area at 25,711 square kilometers, though Lombardy (around Milan), Lazio (Rome region) and Campania (Naples) have higher populations and much greater population densities.

Sicily's "parliament" is the Regional Assembly, presided by a President ("Speaker"). However, Sicily also has a Regional President ("Governor"). In a poetic sense, they are sometimes described as the successors to Sicily's medieval kings and baronial parliaments, and their offices and chambers are housed in and around the Norman Palace, but the comparison is tenuous indeed. Sicily's administrative capital is Palermo, the island's largest city (though the populations of the Catania and Palermo provinces are roughly equal), which was the royal capital from 1130 until the nineteenth century.

As we succinctly describe each office or institution, it is important to bear in mind that no single entity is omnipotent, and that some answer directly to the national government in Rome. Sicily's autonomy, such as it is, is largely illusory, and can't be compared directly to other "semi-independent" European regions such as Bavaria, Catalonia and Scotland.

Sicilian Regional President: Elected directly by popular vote, the "governor" can effect fiscal policy, deciding who gets how much public money, and oversees - through appointed "assessors" (regional cabinet ministers) and various other officials - nature reserves and specific areas such as archaeological/historical sites and a few schools. The region and its 90-member Regional Assembly (parliament) has a large budget, and is allowed to retain some of the "national" taxes collected in Sicily and levy a few of its own. But its power to levy new taxes is rather limited; the IVA (value-added or sales tax), for example, is national. Sicily has had three "governors" (it is a new position). A previous one is in jail, serving a seven-year sentence for white-collar offences - a reminder of the power of the Judiciary (about which more below) and also, unfortunately, the role of corruption and organized crime in public life. The position of President ("speaker") of the Regional Assembly is far less important than that of "governor."

Provincial Presidents and Mayors: Elected by popular vote, they have authority over certain localized services, such as schools, public transport, garbage collection, water and, of course, building permits. However, the police and fire departments answer to national authorities either directly or - in emergencies - via the provincial Prefect. Truth be told, the authority of the province presidents and mayors is quite limited compared to what exists elsewhere, for example in the United States. In larger cities like Palermo and Catania, there is a perpetual if subtle "tug of war" between the two offices, especially when the mayor and province president are in opposing political parties. However, they can levy certain local taxes, though in the largest cities mayors may need approval of the city council (elected officials from various parties) for certain measures. It's not unusual to open the day's Giornale di Sicilia or La Sicilia newspapers to learn that a mayor is under investigation or has been arrested.

Prefect: Each province (Sicily has nine) has a Prefect appointed by the state. He is not a political nominee and answers to the President of the Republic (the head of state), not the Prime Minister. The position, as it exists today, dates to the early unification period (circa 1870) when Rome had to keep an eye on the distant provinces, especially in Sicily where anti-unification (pro-Bourbon) riots and a resistance movement continued until 1866. The Prefect is, in effect, a law-enforcement figure, though in some ways not unlike the commissars in the former Soviet Union. The Prefect, who has local authority over the National Police and Carabinieri (through the military chain of command) can order an arrest - even of a Mayor or the Regional President. Legally, the Prefect, not the Provincial President or Mayor, has specific (if limited) authority for international functions, such as issuing an apostille or acting on a judicial decision to extradite a Sicilian mafioso to New York. It is the Prefect who issues permits for public protests; he is responsible for public order and general safety. In reality, Sicily's nine Prefects are its most important civilian figures, though they keep a low profile.

Questore: This is the chief of police. Here we refer to the National Police, not the Carabinieri, which is a national military-type law enforcement agency. Working closely with the Prefect and Judiciary, the police handle all the tasks you would expect, plus the issuance of passports. As noted, the police do not respond to any elected official, be it the Regional President, Mayors or Provincial Presidents. All politicians have a healthy respect for the person who can serve them with a summons. The Vigili Urbani ("local" police) who answer to the Mayor are nothing more than traffic officers; though armed, they rarely arrest anybody. It's difficult to imagine a vigilessa in high-heeled shoes giving chase to a suspect.

Judiciary: Anybody who claims, or even implies, that the mayors of Catania, Palermo or Messina are more important than judges is ignorant of law, government, reality, or all three. In criminal cases, the chief prosecutor is the Procuratore della Repubblica, a kind of district attorney appointed in each province - at the national level, of course. On behalf of the Italian State, the Procuratore will charge and, if necessary, order the arrest of any political figure in Sicily, even one who is currently in office. Pro tempore immunity from prosecution applies to national political figures (ministers, senators, et al.), not to regional, provincial or local ones. Of particular note is the TAR, or Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale, a court whose power to enforce laws not applied properly by the elected authorities supersedes that of nearly every administrative institution in Italy. Bureaucrats' flawed actions are routinely overturned by the TAR. These are binding decisions; law enforcement answers to the TAR, not to the bureaucrats, so the court's decisions are always enforced. Obviously, the TAR can order the arrest of politicians who fail to comply. Then there's the Corte dei Conti, the financial court that can audit public spending and intervene to cancel an illegal programme such as illegal public hiring.

The Church: The Cardinal Archbishop of Palermo is Primate of Sicily, a title (now honorary) going back to Norman times. In Italy the Catholic Church - not just the Vatican - is a state within a state. The two cardinals south of Rome (archbishops of Naples and Palermo) are, in effect, accredited diplomats. A few years back, a previous Archbishop of Naples refused to cooperate with investigators of the Guardia di Finanza (Treasury Officers), who he actually expelled from his office; they were investigating the archbishop's own brother, a builder who had received contracts from the archdiocese. The Catholic Church owns much rental property and, interestingly, has authority over all cemeteries in Sicily, including ancient necropoli which existed before there was a Church! It also owns some of the most important tourist attractions, such as the cathedrals of Monreale and Siracusa and the Palatine Chapel - though in practice the day-to-day administration of some "tourist" sites has been left to the regional cultural ministry. More importantly, most Italians are at least nominally Catholic, and the Church fills a void in Italians' quest for a visible, if imperfect, moral authority. While the Catholic Church is not without its flaws, it is not directly involved in politics or the Mafia; naturally, given that most Sicilians are Catholic, so are most politicians and mafiosi. In practice, it makes little difference to the Church whether Sicilian politics goes Right or Left because no politician (from either camp) who values his career will attack its power or hierarchy directly, while certain clergy have spoken out for the homeless and against the Mafia (Father Giuseppe Puglisi of Palermo was killed for doing so). Politicians come and go, but a local pastor or bishop (Sicily has eighteen dioceses) might be around for decades. Yes, some bishops are unpleasant, even arrogant, but in Sicily, which has more baptized, self-identified Catholics than northern regions (such as Lombardy) boasting populations of comparable size, they are still a force to be reckoned with.

A few institutions are worth mentioning for completeness.

The Mafia: The Mafia has morphed into a largely commercial institution, its influence much diminished since around 2000. Although its homicide rate has decreased, the organization still exercises an influence in the fields of construction and building restorations, as well as others. It is, as ever, much involved in politics and the Sicilian economy, and owns many businesses outright while extorting the pizzo ("protection" money) from others. The Mafia is the single most significant factor in Sicily's economy. Reports of its demise are premature.

Sicily's Universities: Italy's universities are undistinguished, marked by nepotism. Unsurprisingly considering the way appointments to professorships are made, not one Italian university is ranked in the world's top hundred. In any event, few Italians look to them even as an intellectual authority, and most Italians who win Nobel prizes do so for research undertaken outside Italy. In Sicily the Brain Drain is very real. Sicily's universities are administered by the state, not by any regional or local authority, but around 96% of the professors are Sicilians. In 2011 a grade-selling scandal came to light at the infamous University of Palermo. Yes, staff (though not professors) were altering transcripts and other student records, charging a few hundred euros for each mark modified. Administration is isolated and incompetent; in 2005 the University of Palermo hosted a very public event at historic Palazzo Steri, once the residence of Aragonese kings and queens, in honor of an Italian who claimed to be the princely Head of the Royal House of Portugal - a country that hasn't been a monarchy since 1910 (the man was charged and arrested two years later). One wonders if the history, law or political science professors were even consulted before this debacle.

The Aristocracy: It is important to understand that the historical aristocracy is not the same class as the newer pedocchi riusciti (successful social climbers) one sees everywhere. In 1949 Sicily's large landed estates were broken up, and rigid inheritance laws enforcing the rights of all children (not only the firstborn) did the rest. Moreover, titles of nobility have not been recognized in Italy since 1948. Aristocrats are strikingly absent from Sicilian public life, but a few have emerged as competent business owners. One thing can be said for them: The more better-educated ones usually recognize a fake when they see him. Perhaps the University of Palermo should hire a local duke or countess as a consultant to avoid disasters like the one described above.

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

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© 2012 Maria Luisa Romano and Best of Sicily