Palermo turns against Mafia: An election for mayor gives the city a chance to be reborn, writes Patricia Clough

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The Independent Online
THREE years ago, even, it would have been unthinkable. The very idea that Palermo, the capital of the Mafia and its world crime empire, would ever turn against the 'honoured society' and its political machine, would only have brought pitying laughs.

Yet on 21 November, a day of many important municipal elections in Italy, Palermo is likely to do just that.

At last, after decades of silent complicity, after thousands of murders, of extortion, brutality and intimidation, of corruption, racketeering and greed which have turned this once-beautiful southern city into a monstrous concrete jungle oozing social sores, the worm is turning.

'There has been a rejection,' said Vincenzo Consolo, Sicily's leading writer, who has chosen to live in Milan. 'At last people feel the Mafia is intolerable . . . It is a great change. The city could be born again, both physically and morally.'

The man on whom the hopes of many are pinned is a swarthy, dark-haired 45-year-old who is constantly on the move, heavily guarded, in helicopters and bullet-proof cars, rarely sleeping two nights in one place and in constant danger of his life. Leoluca Orlando is the leader of La Rete, a kind of southern, anti-Mafia counterpart to the Northern League. Founded only two and a half years ago, it came from nowhere to win 28 per cent of the vote in the Sicilian regional elections in June 1991 and - even more remarkable - now appears to be stronger than the Christian Democrats who, in concert with the Mafia, used to rule the city and are now reduced to a pathetic rump run by a commissar sent from party headquarters in Rome.

The turning-point for Palermo was the assassinations of anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in the summer of last year. 'They had become symbols. They were archangels - St Georges who were killing the dragon for them,' said Vincenzo Consolo. A dam of pent-up revulsion burst. Now their pictures are everywhere, alongside crucifixes and the Madonna, in offices and private homes, often with fresh flowers or burning candles by them. In the streets, posters urge citizens to fight the Mafia, a 'Falcone tree' outside the judge's former home bears sheafs of heartfelt messages. Once the Mafia was hardly discussed, now shops sell shelves of books about it.

But things had already been quietly changing for some time. The maxi-trials of Mafia bosses in the 1980s had 'awakened consciences', said Father Bartolomeo Sorge, a leading Jesuit intellectual. The Catholic Church's long silence was broken by a fierce attack against the Mafia by the city's Archbishop, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo. With a long string of assassinations of magistrates, judges, police officials and politicians, the Mafia, under Salvatore Riina - nicknamed the Wild Animal - and his savage Corleone clan had been losing the Mafia's vital protection, the silence and apathy of the public.

To many, Mr Orlando is a knight in shining armour. Jesuit-educated, intellectually brilliant, he inspires an enthusiasm bordering on adulation among the younger and educated. He was previously mayor of the city for five years, thanks to the Christian Democrat party which needed a fresh, young face to help people forget Mafia scandals that, even by Palermo standards, were getting a bit much. Unexpectedly, Mr Orlando took a strong, outspoken stand against the Mafia, although his critics say it was more evident in his words than his deeds. Then he broke with the party.

Many people are uneasy about him. Some because he is alleged to have been involved in murky deals himself. Some because, as a Catholic left-wing radical, they feel he has become a demagogic fundamentalist. Others because no convincing candidates have been found to run against him, not least because he himself has said that, 'objectively', anyone who opposes him will be seen as being on the side of the Mafia. 'It's unhealthy for democracy,' grumbled a Palermo journalist.