October 29, 2012 5:48 pm

Voters in Sicily give comic the last laugh

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A new anti-establishment party led by a stand-up comic has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in Italian politics after riding a wave of anger at the country’s mainstream parties and government austerity to score strongly in Sicily’s regional elections.

With about two-thirds of votes counted from Sunday’s elections by Monday evening, the grassroots Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo was leading as the single biggest party on the island of 5m people with about 15 per cent. It was followed closely by the centre-left Democrats and, in third place, the People of Liberty led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

If confirmed by the final count, the results in Sicily will drive concerns on financial markets over Italy’s political stability and the possibility that no clear winner will emerge from general elections early next year at the end of Mario Monti’s mandate as technocrat prime minister.

A comedian and activist blogger who formed his movement three years ago, Mr Grillo drew large crowds in Sicily with his rants against the system, wasted public spending, corruption and Mr Monti’s austerity policies that have driven Italy deeper into recession. After taking four town councils in local elections in May, the movement confirmed for the first time its ability to move on to a bigger stage.

“I can’t stand Grillo. He is against everything. He is aiming to destroy not change,” lamented the head of one of Italy’s biggest companies, expressing his fears over Mr Grillo’s “revolution” and dismay that the mainstream parties have so far failed to present a viable alternative.

“The best thing for Italy would be to keep Mr Monti,” added the chief executive, who asked not to be named. Mr Monti says he will not run in the elections, but has declared his willingness to serve again if no clear victor emerges.

Sicily’s turnout of 47 per cent was low by Italian standards, reflecting the scale of disillusionment with corruption scandals and high unemployment. The island’s last governor, Raffaele Lombardo, resigned after being charged with mafia association while his predecessor is serving a jail sentence for his links to organised crime.

Analysts cautioned that the low turnout made extrapolation on a national scale difficult to gauge. Nonetheless they saw the results in Sicily as consistent with opinion polls showing the Five Star Movement taking just over 20 per cent of public support across Italy, a few points behind the Democrats.

The result in Sicily for Mr Grillo’s grassroots movement was all the more remarkable given its web-driven campaign spending of just 25,000 euros, many times less than the publicly funded resources of the major parties.

In the race for governor, Rosario Crocetta, the openly gay anti-mafia candidate for the Democrats, who ran in a coalition with the centrist UDC, was leading with 31 per cent. The centre-right’s Sebastiano Musumeci, also backed by a coalition, was polling second with 25 per cent, while Giovanni Cancelleri of the Five Star Movement, who ran alone, was coming third with 18.5 per cent.

Mr Cancelleri, a 37-year-old draughtsman, said he had not expected such an “explosive” outcome.

The poor showing for Mr Berlusconi’s party was particularly damaging for Angelino Alfano, a Sicilian and former justice minister who is running in primaries to be held by the People of Liberty in December to choose its candidate as prime minister.

Mr Alfano, regarded as a pro-European “moderate”, had been the anointed successor of Mr Berlusconi after he was forced to resign as prime minister last November. But Mr Berlusconi’s weekend tirade against Mr Monti’s austerity and Germany’s “hegemonistic” policies was seen as a blow to Mr Alfano, opening up the possibility of the party taking a more populist, Euro-sceptic position closer to that of Mr Grillo.

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