Sicily vote: Berlusconi rises again with a narrow win projected for centre-right

With counting still underway after Sunday's vote, two projections by pollsters for Italian television stations pointed to the Berlusconi-backed candidate, Nello Musumeci, winning the populous island's presidency with respectively 38 percent and 39.8 percent of votes cast.

Sicily vote: Berlusconi rises again with a narrow win projected for centre-right
Silvio Berlusconi pictured at a party event in October. Photo: Eliano Imperato/AFP

That put him ahead of Giancarlo Cancelleri of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), who was projected to have taken 35.1 percent and 36 percent by the pollsters.

Only around 46 percent of the 4.5 million eligible voters were projected to have turned out to vote, slightly down from other recent votes on the mafia-plagued island where disillusionment with politicians runs deep.

The leading margin remained too small for the favourite to declare victory but Giorgia Meloni, leader of one of the small right-wing parties in alliance with Berlusconi's Forza Italia, said “it seems pretty clear Nello Musumeci has won”.

That would represent a setback for Five Star, which had harboured ambitions of taking control of its first region after claiming the mayorships of Rome, Turin and a string of smaller municipalities last year.

Divided left

Five Star did double its popular vote from the last round of regional elections and claimed a moral victory on the grounds that it was projected to get more votes that any other single party. Fabrizio Micari, the candidate of Italy's ruling Democratic Party (PD), was expected to claim around 20 percent of the vote having suffered less slippage than expected to a rival from the far left.

PD regional secretary Fausto Raciti warned that the vote had worrying implications for the Italian left as a whole. “As we wait for the definitive results, we can only recognize a clear defeat. I hope that this outcome will trigger reflection across the left on the need for unity,” he said.

As things stand, the PD will enter the general election, which must take place in the first half of 2018, with former premier Matteo Renzi as its candidate to lead the country. A centrist, Renzi is loathed by many on the left of his own party and in other factions. They accuse him of adopting right-wing policies in the guise of reforms aimed at bolstering Italy's flagging competitiveness.

Renzi also carries the baggage of his defeat in a 2015 referendum on constitutional reform that led to his resignation and replacement by current premier Paolo Gentiloni.

Barred from office

In contrast, Berlusconi is on the rise again and victory in Sicily will strengthen the 81-year-old's hand as he prepares to tie down the terms of a general election alliance with the far-right Northern League.

“This marks the start of a wonderful new chapter for the united right,” said Giovanni Toti, governor of the northern region of Liguria and a key lieutenant of the revitalized Berlusconi.

READ ALSO: Berlusconi gave Putin a custom-designed duvet cover for his birthday

The four-time former premier had been written off as a spent political force after a series of scandals and open heart surgery last year. He is barred from public office as a result of a conviction for tax fraud, but is hoping to have the ban lifted. Even if it is not he will be a central figure in what promises to be a highly unpredictable election.

With the left struggling to overcome its divisions and M5S losing momentum, a Forza Italia-Northern League alliance looks well-placed to emerge as the biggest force at the polls, which will be fought under a new electoral system favouring broad alliances.

M5S has denounced the electoral reform as rigged against it. The party, which styles itself as an anti-establishment force, has thus far ruled out entering into any alliance.

Its candidate for prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, had been due to debate Renzi on national television on Monday but pulled out as the disappointing Sicily results emerged.

By Angus MacKinnon


How Italy’s anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ has become a global revolutionary anthem

The historic Italian anthem 'Bella Ciao' is being used by demonstrators from all across the world to to oppose injustices and abuse.

How Italy's anthem 'Bella Ciao' has become a global revolutionary anthem

From Ukraine to Chile, protesters worldwide have long rallied to the stirring Italian anthem Bella Ciao, which is now being sung by demonstrators in solidarity with women in Iran.

The song, which talks of dying for freedom, was sung in Italy during World War II and became a symbol of resistance against fascism.

READ ALSO: Seven faces of the Italian resistance whose stories you should know

It has since become a global rallying call, with the song currently being used by those protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the feared Iranian morality police.

Early in the protests, a video of a singer – her head uncovered in defiance of the compulsory hijab – performing a version in Persian went viral.

Since then, Bella Ciao – meaning ‘Goodbye Beautiful’ in Italian – has been sung by supporters of the protests from all corners of the world, including Kurdish women in Turkey and expatriate Iranians in Paris.

Although the song has long been associated with Italian partisan fighters (the so-called ‘partigiani‘), there is no evidence it was actually ever sung by them, according to Carlo Pestelli, author of the book Bella Ciao: The Song of Freedom.

READ ALSO: The ‘forgotten’ resistance: The Italian partisans neglected by history books

The song certainly became popular during the war, he said, but its history traces back to 19th-century traditional folk songs from northern Italy characterised by passionate themes, especially unfulfilled love.

“It is difficult to say exactly what its origins are,” Pestelli told AFP, adding that its ambiguous lyrics have allowed for its adoption in many different causes.

“It wasn’t a communist song but a manifesto for freedom… it represents apolitical values that everyone can understand and share,” Pestelli said.

It is also “an easy song to sing”, with a catchy chorus that even non-Italian speakers can pick up.

Over time, the global reach of the song has been fuelled by popular interpretations, including by French star Yves Montand and, more recently, its inclusion in the Netflix hit Money Heist.

Bella Ciao can now be heard wherever there are crowds rallying, from the streets of New York to Hong Kong and Athens.

A cry against oppression

Earlier this year, Ukrainians sang Bella Ciao in defiance of the invading Russian forces.

But, the song has also been the soundtrack to dancing demonstrators in Tripoli, a chant by English football fans and a call for action by climate activists from Sydney to Brussels.

In Rome and Paris, it was sung with emotion from windows and balconies during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown.

Italian residents singing 'Bella Ciao' in Rome.

During Italy’s Covid lockdown, residents sang ‘Bella Ciao’ from windows and balconies. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

For many, the history of the song is now less important than its global impact.

“This song is very famous in Iran and all over the world because it is a symbol against oppression,” said Masah, a 29-year-old Iranian expatriate who attended a solidarity rally for the Mahsa Amini protests in Rome this week.

While the lyrics are often translated, the chorus is normally sung in Italian, although that too has been adapted on some occasions.

Last year in Jerusalem, protesters against then prime minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu sang ‘Bibi Ciao’ ahead of his departure from office.

In 2019, anti-regime protesters in Iraq rallied to their own version, ‘Blaya Chara’, meaning ‘no way out’ in Iraqi dialect.

“When we sing it, we feel more united with the whole world,” added Masah’s sister, Shiva, 33, at the Iran protest in Rome.

“Music is a form of expression that allows you to communicate even without knowing other languages,” she added.