Sicily elects governor linked with Mafia

  • @peterpopham

Sicily has confirmed its dubious reputation by enabling Salvatore Cuffaro, a Christian Democrat on trial for complicity with the Mafia, to trounce the sister of a murdered anti-Mafia judge and win a second term as governor of the island.

Mr Cuffaro, nicknamed "Vasa Vasa" [Kiss Kiss] for his tendency to kiss all and sundry - he claims that he has kissed a quarter of all the people on the island - went on trial in Palermo last year. He was accused of tipping off a friend that his phone was being tapped by anti-Mafia investigators tracing links between Sicilian politicians, civil servants and the Mob. He refused to resign when sent for trial, saying he would only do so if convicted.

The decision by Rita Borsellino to run against him turned yesterday's election into a test of the island's readiness to unite and fight the Mafia that extorts protection money from around 80 per cent of tradesmen in Palermo, and makes huge sums through its corrupt domination of public works projects, rubbish disposal and hospital supplies. It is a test Sicily has failed - though Ms Borsellino cut Mr Cuffaro's majority from more than 20 per cent to about 9 per cent. Mr Cuffaro won 52.2 per cent of the vote, against 43 per cent for Ms Borsellino.

A pharmacist whose family run a chemist's shop in Palermo, Rita was the sister of Paolo Borsellino, an investigating magistrate blown to pieces in 1992 by a huge Mafia bomb outside his mother's front door. Two months earlier, his close colleague, Giovanni Falcone, with whom he had been leading a wide-ranging investigation into the Mafia, was killed in the same way along with his wife and bodyguards on a Palermo motorway.

The murders ignited the conscience of Sicilians, who came out on the streets in huge numbers to protest. Rita Borsellino became a figurehead for the first mass anti-Mafia movement. "After the massacres," she said during the campaign, "my life changed fundamentally. I decided to come out of my private life and begin this voyage which has never ended, travelling around Sicily, Italy and other parts of Europe, telling what had happened."

The anti-Mafia campaign subsequently ran out of steam. "We've gone backwards a lot," she said, regarding Sicilian attitudes to organised crime. "The Mafia are a presence in politics again. In these five years, sadly, there have been major steps backwards, including the intertwining of certain Mafia figures and certain politicians."

But her decision to run for governor gave the anti-Mafia movement another shot of life. "The movement re-ignited, they've found a point of reference in me," she said.

But now her movement has run up against the pronounced and perennial conservatism of Sicily - and its willingness to turn a blind eye. "We are up against an adversary that is very powerful and has many means at its disposal," Ms Borsellino said, "and is in power, and retains a certain base of support in the territory among those who believe they will bring material benefits, who believe the promises that have been made to them."

After the result became clear, a Christian Democrat colleague of Mr Cuffaro, Saverio Romano, commented: "It is a personal victory for President Cuffaro who in these years has been heavily slandered, denigrated and attacked, even by other politicians."

But a supporter of Ms Borsellino's, Claudio Fava, said: "Cuffaro started to lose today. This is just the first step. The next will be in Palermo's court house. If you consider the defections from his ticket, Cuffaro has suffered a loss. The fiery power of the centre-right coalition was unable to protect him."

* The centre-left coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi kept its grip on cities including Rome, Turin and Naples and forced a run-off election for mayor of Milan, a conservative stronghold, early projections in local balloting indicated. The election for mayors as well as for the governor of Sicily was the first balloting since parliamentary elections on 9-10 April in which Mr Prodi's forces narrowly defeated the conservatives of Silvio Berlusconi.