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‘Immortal’ Berlusconi set for comeback after centre-right win in Sicily vote

Silvio Berlusconi was on Monday celebrating a return to centre-stage in Italian politics as a right-wing coalition he helped put together declared victory in Sicily elections that had been billed as a key test ahead of Italy's general election next year.

'Immortal' Berlusconi set for comeback after centre-right win in Sicily vote
Silvio Berlusconi pictured at a party event in October. Photo: AFP

With over 98 percent of votes counted after Sunday's regional vote, the Berlusconi-backed candidate for regional president, Nello Musumeci, had a fraction under 40 percent, comfortably clear of Giancarlo Cancelleri of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), on 34.6 percent.

It was a bleak day for the country's ruling Democratic Party (PD) and its coalition partners. The PD candidate polled 18.6 percent and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni's centre-left party lost control of the regional assembly.

Declaring the latest triumph in his chequered career, the 81-year-old Berlusconi said on his social media outlets that: “Sicily has chosen the road of real, serious and constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience.”

Fewer than half the 4.5 million eligible voters cast ballots as turnout fell slightly from other recent votes on the mafia-plagued island where disillusionment with politicians runs deep. The outcome represents a setback for M5S, 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.

It also underlined the significant problems facing the PD as it struggles to unite Italy's divided left in time for a nationwide vote due in the first half of 2018.

Summing up the lessons of the vote, Luiss university politics professor Giovannia Orsina said: “Berlusconi is still going and the right is competitive again.”

Divided left

Five Star doubled its popular vote from the last round of regional elections (in 2012) and claimed a moral victory on the grounds that it got more votes that any other single party. “We started a wave that can take us to 40 percent in four months time (in the national election),” said Luigi Di Maio, the party's candidate for prime minister.

The PD's regional secretary, Fausto Raciti, described the outcome as a wake-up call for the left. “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 with former premier Matteo Renzi as its candidate to lead the country. A centrist, Renzi is loathed by many on the left, inside and outside of his own party. 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 Gentiloni.

Barred from office

In contrast, Berlusconi is on the rise again and victory in Sicily will strengthen his 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. Lombardy governor Roberto Maroni hailed the former premier as “immortal.”

Famous for his 'Bunga Bunga' sex parties, penchant for plastic surgery and serial off-colour gaffes, Berlusconi 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. Di Maio had been due to debate Renzi on national television on Monday but pulled out as the disappointing Sicily results emerged.

By Alessio Tricani with Angus Mackinnon in Rome

POLITICS

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.

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