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Sicilians Vote Today in Key Preview of Post-Monti Italy

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

About 4 million Sicilians can have their say today in regional elections that amount to a key test before a national vote next year set to shape Italy’s future.

Voters, weary of party-funding scandals and the austerity of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government, are getting new-look politicians who aim to please by swimming to Sicily and renouncing sex. Sicilians are to elect the regional assembly and government amid forecasts that no winner will emerge from the polling stations.

“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. The theatrics around Sicily’s vote showcase the outsiders and establishment forces vying to replace Monti in the national vote due by May. Italians will watch to see whether Beppe Grillo, who swam the 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) from the mainland to the island, can turn his anti-austerity stance into votes. Pier Luigi Bersani, the frontrunner in the national race, is backing Rosario Crocetta, an openly gay ex-mayor who vowed chastity if he wins.

Grillo’s Gains

Newer voices like that of 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 said on Oct. 26 in the final rally of his election tour.

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.

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

On the eve of the vote, Berlusconi threatened to topple the government, saying its economic policies are deepening the country’s fourth recession since 2001. The People of Liberty Party will “decide whether to immediately withdraw our support,” Berlusconi, 76, told reporters yesterday near Milan.

Hung Parliament

There has been little polling in Sicily, though a survey of national voting preferences published Oct. 26 by the Trieste-based SWG Institute put Grillo at 22 percent. That places 5 Star second only to the Democratic Party, with 25.4 percent, and ahead of People of Liberty, which got 15 percent.

That kind of showing could lead to a hung parliament in Sicily, and may force the People of Liberty and the 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 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.”

‘No Monti Day’

In a showing of opposition to the Italian government’s austerity drive, thousands of protesters yesterday attended a rally in Rome branded “No Monti Day” organized by unions.

Back in Sicily, the party of Berlusconi, who on Oct. 26 was found guilty by a Milan court of a tax fraud, is seeking to appeal to voters with former parliamentarian Nello Musumeci. Berlusconi said yesterday that he won’t run for prime minister in the national election, though he intends to remain in Italian politics.

Bersani, of the center-left, tapped 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.”

Sicilian Mafia

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.

“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.

Voting opened at 8 a.m. with polls closing at 10 p.m. Results won’t be available until tomorrow.

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