Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Where are you, UN observers, when we need you?

Ten days ago, Palermo elected its new mayor. The choice wasn’t particularly mouth-watering. In the blue corner, for Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, a man of no obvious merit other than a slightly oily bella figura and a clean police record. In the red corner, for the centre-left, Leoluca Orlando, the man behind what became fondly known as the Palermo spring some years ago, when a small measure of legality was introduced to the city, but whose political career since then has been one flop after the next. Berlusconi’s man won, by a substantial head.

None of this would be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the way in which the elections were conducted. In one polling station, 200 ballot papers were clearly marked with the same hand (and unauthorised pen). On numerous occasions, people turned up to find that someone else had already cast their vote for them. On others, voters were accompanied into the booths. Scrutinizers who brought these malpractices to the attention of the person in charge were intimidated and the doubtful votes—always, I need hardly say, for Forza Italia—accepted. Just to make sure that people did what they were told, mobile phones were being distributed outside the polling stations, so that photos could be taken of the ballot papers, and then handed back at the exit. These voters were less fortunate though than Forza Italia voters in the last general elections in Aversa who, I’ve been told, got to keep the mobile.

Orlando immediately denounced all this, but the general mood is that he’d have done better to keep his mouth shut. The centre-right say he’s a bad loser. The centre-left, as usual, seems to want to avoid claims of electoral corruption, possibly to save its skin, more probably because they also see it as counterproductive to be seen to be complaining. Taking it on the chin, in Italy, has become synonymous with letting Berlusconi decide the agenda.

The most perturbing aspect of the whole business for me though is the absolute silence of the European press (as far as I’ve been able to tell). What would have been said if this had happened in Birmingham, or Bonn, or Barcelona? Would nothing have been written? Would nobody have cared? In its own way, what went on in Palermo is quite as shocking as the nefarious process by which Nigeria recently ‘elected’ its government, and that was reported at length. Is it simply that people expect this kind of behaviour from Italy, and Sicily above all?

Berlusconi continues to insist that Italy gained massive international prestige during his five years of misrule. This is laughably untrue. Even the Mail on Sunday called him a corrupt buffoon. But unless some noise is made to remind Italy and the Italians that normal standards of political conduct apply in the country, even in Sicily, he can hardly be blamed for continuing to conduct his dirty business in this shameless manner.

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