Candidates Swim to Sicily, Give Up Sex in Regional Vote

Italian Comedian-Turned-Politician Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo, Italian comedian-turned-politician, used anger over austerity and higher retirement ages to boost a political party that polls show could get as much as 18 percent of the vote nationwide in elections due by May. Photographer: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Italian voters, weary of funding scandals and austerity, are getting new-look politicians who aim to please by swimming to Sicily and renouncing sex in a regional election that may shape Prime Minister Mario Monti’s future.

The theatrics around Sicily’s Oct. 28 vote showcase the outsiders and establishment forces vying to replace Monti in national polls due by April. Mainland Italians will watch to see if Beppe Grillo, who swam the 2.2 miles to the island of Sicily, can turn his anti-austerity populism into votes. Pier Luigi Bersani, the frontrunner in the national race, is backing an openly gay former mayor who vowed chastity if he wins.

“It’s a dress rehearsal,” said James Walston, a politics professor at Rome’s American University. “It will give us a first barometer reading on the state of the parties.”

Political power in Italy is up for grabs as the dominant parties of the last two decades struggle to shake the taint of corruption, recession and Monti’s tax increases. Newer voices like Grillo, a former comic turned political gadfly, are using the race in Sicily to convince policymakers at the national and European levels that voters are poised to repudiate austerity.

“If Sicily changes, Italy changes,” Grillo said on his blog. “And then, perhaps, Europe changes,” he wrote in English in the post, which was addressed to “Sicilians throughout the world.”

Grillo’s Gains

Grillo’s 5 Star Movement will be the biggest opposition party on the Sicilian ballot, and a showing of more than 10 percent should be considered a success, said Vincenzo Emanuele, a political researcher at Luiss University in Rome.

“It took me six months of training, but in the end I managed to swim across the strait of Messina in 15 minutes less than what it takes by ferry,” Grillo, 64, said last night at a rally in Palermo before thousands of supporters. He said 5 Star has become Sicily’s biggest political force.

The country’s two main parties are running against each other in the regional contest, resuming a rivalry that was interrupted in November when the People of Liberty and the Democratic Party came together to back Monti.

There has been little polling in Sicily, though a survey published today by the Trieste-based SWG Institute of national voting preferences put Grillo on 22 percent. That puts 5 Star second only to the Democratic Party, on 25.4 percent, and ahead of People of Liberty, which got 15 percent.

Hung Parliament

That kind of showing could lead to a hung parliament in Sicily, and may force former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty Party and Bersani’s Democratic Party to join forces again. Such an outcome may increase the chances of Monti serving a second term should the national vote produce similar political gridlock that would necessitate another grand coalition.

“Political fragmentation means that it’s certainly possible to have an hung parliament in Sicily,” said Silvio Peruzzo, an economist at Nomura International Plc in London. “For the same reasons, this may happen again in the national elections next year. Should that be the case, a hung parliament in Rome would pave the way to a broad coalition led by a technocrat, Monti himself or someone else.”

‘Dangerous to Confidence’

Monti, 69, an apolitical caretaker, isn’t supporting a candidate in Sicily and won’t compete in the national elections. Still, the former university president and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. adviser has said he would be available to serve as premier again after the national vote and under his tenure the yield on the country’s benchmark 10-year bond yield has fallen more than 200 basis points to 4.895 percent.

“Any significant move toward anti-austerity or non-conventional political forces such as Grillo could be dangerous for market confidence, and increase nerves ahead of the April general election,” said Biagio Lapolla, a rate strategist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London.

In a showing of opposition to the Italian government’s austerity drive, thousands of protesters are expected to attend a rally in Rome tomorrow organized by unions. A march in the capital’s center branded ’No Monti Day’ takes place about a year after a demonstration in Rome against Berlusconi government policies turned violent with 30 police and 20 protesters injured.

‘Farewell to Sex’

Back in Sicily, the party of Berlusconi, who this week said he wouldn’t run for prime minister in the national election, is seeking to appeal to voters with former parliamentarian Nello Musumeci. Bersani, of the center-left, tapped Rosario Crocetta, who won fame as the mafia-fighting mayor of Gela in the south of Sicily. Crocetta also has the backing of a centrist party that has opposed same-sex unions.

“If I were to become Sicily’s president, I would say farewell to sex,” Crocetta said in an Aug. 20 interview with news website KlausCondicio. “I will consider myself married to my region and its inhabitants.”

The campaign is taking place in the country’s poorest region, where the jobless rate is almost twice the national average of 10.6 percent and where organized crime saps economic growth. The early election was called after the resignation of regional President Raffaele Lombardo, who was indicted for alleged links with the Sicilian Mafia.

Voting opens at 8 a.m. with polls closing at 10 p.m. Results will not be available until Oct. 29.

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