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Map of Sicily
Who's in charge? In Sicily,
where street protests and strikes are the order
of the day, where organized
crime and political corruption go hand in hand and sometimes run amok,
where public services and education (including the universities) often seem
mediocre at best, it is a very good question. Let's attempt an answer.
We should begin by establishing that Sicily has been a "semi-autonomous"
region of Italy since 1946. During his brief reign, King Umberto II signed
the decree just a few weeks before the referendum that made the nation a
republic. The king was "encouraged" by the occupying Allies. Aosta
and several other regions would follow this course, effectively "federalizing"
the state the Savoys and Garibaldi
Italy has twenty geopolitical "regions," Sicily being the largest in area at 25,711 square kilometers,
though Lombardy (around Milan), Lazio (Rome region) and Campania (Naples) have higher populations and
much greater population densities.
Sicily's "parliament" is the Regional Assembly, presided
by a President ("Speaker"). However, Sicily also has a
Regional President ("Governor"). In a poetic sense, they
are sometimes described as the successors to Sicily's medieval kings and
baronial parliaments, and their offices and chambers are housed in and around
the Norman Palace, but the comparison is tenuous
indeed. Sicily's administrative capital is Palermo,
the island's largest city (though the populations of the Catania
and Palermo provinces are roughly equal), which was the royal capital from
1130 until the nineteenth century.
As we succinctly describe each office or institution, it is important
to bear in mind that no single entity is omnipotent, and that some answer
directly to the national government in Rome. Sicily's autonomy, such as
it is, is largely illusory, and can't be compared directly to other "semi-independent"
European regions such as Bavaria, Catalonia and Scotland.
Sicilian Regional President: Elected directly by popular vote,
the "governor" can effect fiscal policy, deciding who gets how
much public money, and oversees - through appointed "assessors" (regional
cabinet ministers) and various other officials - nature reserves and specific areas such as archaeological/historical sites and a few schools.
The region and its 90-member Regional Assembly (parliament) has a large budget, and
is allowed to retain some of the "national"
taxes collected in Sicily and levy a few of its own. But its power to levy
new taxes is rather limited; the IVA (value-added or sales tax), for example,
is national. Sicily has had three "governors" (it is a new position).
A previous one is in jail, serving a seven-year
sentence for white-collar offences - a reminder of the power of the Judiciary
(about which more below) and also, unfortunately, the role of corruption and organized crime in public
life. The position of President ("speaker")
of the Regional Assembly is far less important than that of "governor."
Provincial Presidents and Mayors: Elected by popular vote, they
have authority over certain localized services, such as schools, public
transport, garbage collection, water and, of course, building permits. However,
the police and fire departments answer to national authorities either directly
or - in emergencies - via the provincial Prefect. Truth be told,
the authority of the province presidents and mayors is quite limited compared
to what exists elsewhere, for example in the United States. In larger cities
like Palermo and Catania, there is a perpetual if subtle "tug of war"
between the two offices, especially when the mayor and province president
are in opposing political parties. However, they can levy certain local
taxes, though in the largest cities mayors may need approval of the city
council (elected officials from various parties) for certain measures. It's
not unusual to open the day's Giornale di Sicilia or La Sicilia
newspapers to learn that a mayor is under investigation or has been arrested.
Prefect: Each province (Sicily has nine) has a Prefect
appointed by the state. He is not a political nominee and answers to the
President of the Republic (the head of state), not the Prime Minister.
The position, as it exists today, dates to the early unification period
(circa 1870) when Rome had to keep an eye on the distant provinces, especially
in Sicily where anti-unification (pro-Bourbon) riots
and a resistance movement continued until 1866. The Prefect is, in
effect, a law-enforcement figure, though in some ways not unlike the commissars
in the former Soviet Union. The Prefect, who has local authority over the
National Police and Carabinieri (through the military chain
of command) can order an arrest - even of a Mayor or the Regional
President. Legally, the Prefect, not the Provincial President
or Mayor, has specific (if limited) authority for international functions,
such as issuing an apostille or acting on a judicial decision to
extradite a Sicilian mafioso
to New York. It is the Prefect who issues permits for public protests;
he is responsible for public order and general safety. In reality, Sicily's
nine Prefects are its most important civilian figures, though they
keep a low profile.
Questore: This is the chief of police. Here we refer to the National
Police, not the Carabinieri, which is a national military-type
law enforcement agency. Working closely with the Prefect and Judiciary,
the police handle all the tasks you would expect, plus the issuance of passports.
As noted, the police do not respond to any elected official, be it the Regional
President, Mayors or Provincial Presidents. All politicians have
a healthy respect for the person who can serve them with a summons. The
Vigili Urbani ("local" police) who answer to the Mayor
are nothing more than traffic officers; though armed, they rarely arrest
anybody. It's difficult to imagine a vigilessa in high-heeled shoes
giving chase to a suspect.
Judiciary: Anybody who claims, or even implies, that the mayors
of Catania, Palermo or Messina are more important than judges is ignorant
of law, government, reality, or all three. In criminal cases, the chief
prosecutor is the Procuratore della Repubblica, a kind of district
attorney appointed in each province - at the national level, of course.
On behalf of the Italian State, the Procuratore will charge and,
if necessary, order the arrest of any political figure in Sicily, even one
who is currently in office. Pro tempore immunity from prosecution
applies to national political figures (ministers, senators, et al.), not
to regional, provincial or local ones. Of particular note is
the TAR, or Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale, a
court whose power to enforce laws not applied properly by the elected authorities
supersedes that of nearly every administrative institution in Italy. Bureaucrats' flawed actions are
routinely overturned by the TAR. These are binding decisions; law enforcement answers to the
TAR, not to the bureaucrats, so the court's decisions are always enforced. Obviously, the
TAR can order the arrest of politicians who fail to comply. Then there's
the Corte dei Conti, the financial court that can audit public spending and
intervene to cancel an illegal programme such as illegal public hiring.
The Church: The Cardinal Archbishop of Palermo is Primate
of Sicily, a title (now honorary) going back to Norman
times. In Italy the Catholic Church - not just the Vatican - is a state
within a state. The two cardinals south of Rome (archbishops of Naples and
Palermo) are, in effect, accredited diplomats. A few years back, a previous
Archbishop of Naples refused to cooperate with investigators of the Guardia
di Finanza (Treasury Officers), who he actually expelled from his office;
they were investigating the archbishop's own brother, a builder who had
received contracts from the archdiocese. The Catholic Church owns much rental
property and, interestingly, has authority over all cemeteries in Sicily,
including ancient necropoli which existed before there was a Church!
It also owns some of the most important tourist attractions, such as the
cathedrals of Monreale
and Siracusa and
the Palatine Chapel - though in practice the day-to-day
administration of some "tourist" sites has been left to the regional
cultural ministry. More importantly, most Italians are at least nominally
Catholic, and the Church fills a void in Italians' quest for a visible,
if imperfect, moral authority. While the Catholic Church is not without
its flaws, it is not directly involved in politics or the Mafia;
naturally, given that most Sicilians are Catholic, so are most politicians
and mafiosi. In practice, it makes little difference to the Church whether Sicilian
politics goes Right or Left because no politician (from either camp) who values
his career will attack its power or hierarchy directly, while certain clergy have spoken out for the homeless
and against the Mafia (Father Giuseppe Puglisi of Palermo was killed for
doing so). Politicians come and go, but a local pastor or bishop (Sicily
has eighteen dioceses) might be around for decades. Yes, some bishops are
unpleasant, even arrogant, but in Sicily, which has more baptized, self-identified
Catholics than northern regions (such as Lombardy) boasting populations
of comparable size, they are still a force to be reckoned with.
A few institutions are worth mentioning for completeness.
The Mafia: The Mafia
has morphed into a largely commercial institution, its influence much diminished
since around 2000. Although its homicide rate has decreased, the organization
still exercises an influence in the fields of construction and building
restorations, as well as others. It is, as ever, much involved in politics
and the Sicilian economy, and owns many businesses outright while extorting
the pizzo ("protection" money)
from others. The Mafia is the single most significant factor in Sicily's
economy. Reports of its demise are premature.
Sicily's Universities: Italy's universities
are undistinguished, marked by nepotism. Unsurprisingly
considering the way appointments to professorships are made, not one Italian
university is ranked in the world's top hundred. In any event, few Italians
look to them even as an intellectual authority, and most Italians who win
Nobel prizes do so for research undertaken outside Italy. In Sicily the
Brain Drain is very real. Sicily's universities are administered
by the state, not by any regional or local authority, but around 96% of
the professors are Sicilians. In 2011 a grade-selling scandal came to light
at the infamous University of Palermo. Yes, staff (though not professors) were
altering transcripts and other student records, charging a few hundred
euros for each mark modified. Administration is isolated and incompetent;
in 2005 the University of Palermo hosted a very public event at historic Palazzo Steri,
once the residence of Aragonese kings and queens, in honor of an Italian who
claimed to be the princely Head of the Royal House of Portugal - a country that
hasn't been a monarchy since 1910 (the man was charged and arrested two years later).
One wonders if the history, law or political science professors were even consulted before this debacle.
The Aristocracy: It is important to understand that the historical
aristocracy is not the same class as the newer pedocchi riusciti (successful
social climbers) one sees everywhere. In 1949 Sicily's large landed estates were broken
up, and rigid inheritance laws enforcing the rights of all children (not
only the firstborn) did the rest. Moreover, titles
of nobility have not been recognized in Italy since 1948. Aristocrats
are strikingly absent from Sicilian public life, but a few have emerged as competent business
owners. One thing can be said for them: The more better-educated ones usually recognize a fake when
they see him. Perhaps the University of Palermo should hire a local duke or countess as a
consultant to avoid disasters like the one described above.
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written about social topics for various Italian magazines, including this one.