Italy: Pss! Wanna buy some votes?

Il Sole-24 Ore (Milan)

Times change, but one tradition in the south of Italy appears to be here to stay: the buying and selling of votes. Three candidates in the European elections told us about their experience, and how they were offered all-in packages at unbeatable prices, from as little as 80 cents a ballot.

Everything is up for sale in the European free-market for votes. On 20 May, Giacomo Mancini was canvassing in Puglia hoping to convince punters in the province of Bari to vote for him when he received a call on his mobile phone. He has had the same number for eight years; thousands of people must know it. “The man on the end of the line said he was a political activist, and asked if we could meet. We arranged a rendezvous in Andria. I am someone who has always lived among the people, and I have always flown the flag for transparency.”

At the meeting, a surprise was in store. Mancini found himself speaking to three men who explained that they controlled ten polling divisions and could provide him with a package of 2,000 guaranteed votes. “To get those crosses next to my name, I just had to pay 3,000 euros.” At that price, it was a bargain: €1.50 a vote. “My team and I had a few laughs talking about how we could buy our way into office, but not before I had seen off the three stooges. I just told them, I don’t buy votes, I win them.” And how did the trio react? “There was no reaction; they just walked off. They were probably going to make the same pitch to another candidate.”

Mancini did not alert the police. He prefers to talk about this experience — which is not at all uncommon — to voters. “Election campaigns are expensive, and we get a lot of calls from people offering to set up support committees,” but not for free.

From Puglia to Sicily, it is the same story. Rosario Crocetta is mayor of Gela. He has built a reputation by standing up to the local mafia and his life has been under threat since he dismissed the wife of clan leader Daniele Emmanuello from a job in the town hall. When he is campaigning, or whenever he appears in public, Crocetta has to be protected by bodyguards. However, this did not prevent the mafia from contacting his team to offer him a package of votes. “It was 400 euros for every batch of 500 votes.” When compared with Puglia — at 80 cents a vote — that is almost half price.

For the mayor of Gela, the effects of the vote sales are clearly visible. “In the final week, the cost of a single vote in Sicily can be to up to 60 euros. How else do you explain the fact that unknown candidates harvest thousands of votes, and succeed in winning a seat?” The practice is still widespread, and no one is above suspicion. Crocetta will be running against UDC candidate Antonello Antinoro, an ex-culture councillor of the Sicilian regional government who was prosecuted for exchanging votes for favours. Right now, Crocetta’s poster campaign is on all the walls of every town and village in Sicily and many people are asking where he found the money. “Election campaigns are very expensive, but I have opened a special current account and you can see where every cent of the money came from. Any suspicious looking cheques are returned to sender.”

In Naples, it is a similar story. Enzo Rivellini is the Campania Region group leader for the National Alliance (AN) party, which recently merged with Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL). He is running for Europe after a long career built on preventing the waste of public funds and fighting corruption. However, when he is on the phone to potential voters, every now and again someone will ask for a payoff. “No one has ever directly demanded money. But they can slip in a question about a son who is looking for work, that is very common.” He has a technique to cut the conversation short. “I always tell them the carabinieri might be tapping the line,” Rivellini says with a smile, “but I think it shows how drastic the situation is for people in the South.” A new price range for votes certainly will not make his task any easier.

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