Anti-Mafia protest puts Berlusconi on the defensive

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The Independent Online

Four days before Italy's general election, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has made another frenzied attempt to energise his support base, launching a vitriolic attack on magistrates.

"It is absurd," he told a press conference yesterday, "that while I am working from morning to night ... employees of the state are plotting against the Prime Minister ... It is infamy that they should use these methods to convince the electorate."

Mr Berlusconi's increasingly wild attacks suggest a man who is now convinced he is going to lose. One of the key regions set to punish him is Sicily.

And that transformation is largely due to the courage and dynamism of a 60-year-old white-haired grandmother who has spent most of her life working in the family chemist's shop.

Rita Borsellino's life was transformed on 19 July 1992 when her elder brother Paolo, one of two investigating magistrates working to break the grip of the Mafia on Sicily, was blown to pieces outside his mother's house in Palermo, along with his five bodyguards.

The murders came less than two months after the murder of Mr Borsellino's colleague Giovanni Falcone.

The killings wreaked a remarkable change in Italy. A nation that had seemed resigned to the fact the Mafia would always be around was transformed by horror and disgust. Four days after Mr Borsellino's death, 10,000 people came out on the streets of Palermo, at the time the most dangerous city in Europe, to demonstrate. A grassroots anti-Mafia movement had sprung up overnight, and the shy and elegant pharmacist was at the heart of it.

For years she criss-crossed Italy spreading the word. Fourteen years later, she is now standing for election as president of the Sicily region - against the Christian Democrat incumbent, Toto Cuffaro, who is on trial for Mafia-related offences.

And her decision to stand has galvanised the anti-government forces in the island.

Ms Borsellino announced her candidacy last October, in the teeth of the embarrased opposition of the centre-left parties, who wanted one of their own to run. The spontaneous surge of support she prompted changed their minds. "What we are seeing is the re-awakening of Sicily," said Salvo Palazzolo, Palermo corrrespondent of La Repubblica and author of books on the Mafia.

"It is the first time it has happened since the massacres of 1992. For 12 years, the movement against the Mafia has been dormant, but she has got huge popular support. The parties realised they had no option but to support her."

Speaking in her campaign office, Ms Borsellino said: "When I announced my candidacy, the anti-Mafia movement reignited: I am a point of reference, and today there are young people involved, those who were young in '92, and the centre-left political parties, too. They've rediscovered a common language that was lost for years."

The outpouring of popular anger against the Mafia in 1992 emboldened the state finally to crack down on the Mob and there ensued the biggest purge in modern times. The island went quiet practically overnight, and has remained relatively peaceful since. But the Mafia has not gone away.

The ties of Silvio Berlusconi and his party Forza Italia to the Mafia are well documented: one of his closest associates, the Sicilian Marcello dell'Utri, is appealing against a nine-year sentence for complicity with the Mafia. In 2001, the centre-right won all 61 Sicilian seats, and nobody mentioned the Mob. "The problem seemed to disappear," Ms Borsellino said. "Nobody talked about it. There was silence. And in these last five years there have been major steps backwards."

If Berlusconi and the centre-right loses on Monday, and if Rita Borsellino goes on to win the presidency next month, things may begin to change. She said: "We haven't won yet. We're up against a powerful adversary with much of the media at its command."

If she wins, the fight against the more pernicious and deep-rooted enemy can begin again. "The Mafia," she said, quoting Giovanni Falcone, "is a human phenomenon: as such it is born and lives, but it also dies."