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Italy’s noth-south rift deepens

July 29, 2009

by Guy Dinmore, published on the FT on July 29th

Just as Italy’s elite is pondering how to celebrate 150 years of statehood, a revolt among Silvio Berlusconi’s allies in Sicily has shaken his coalition government while fuelling an enduring debate over Italy’s north-south divide and its fragile sense of national identity.

Centre-right allies in Sicily, who famously delivered the prime minister a full sweep of the island’s deputies in the 2001 parliamentary elections, have threatened to form a breakaway southern party or faction.

The row surfaced with allegations that Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, had used a 63.3bn euro fund for under-developed regions, intended mainly for the south, as a “bancomat” or cash card for general government spending.

More fundamentally the dispute has exposed tensions within Mr Berlusconi’s disparate coalition. Complicated by the strong personalities and individual histories involved, the rift stems from a sense among southern “rebels” that the government is bowing to interests of the north under the influence of Mr Tremonti and the Northern League — a right-wing regional party that views the south and the “thieves of Rome” as a corrupt black hole of expenditure.

Aides also suggest that a string of scandals over Mr Berlusconi’s private life, involving allegations of liaisons with escorts and a teenager, have contributed to the rift between the prime minister and Raffaele Lombardo, Sicily’s conservative and Catholic governor who heads the island’s Movement for Autonomy party.

“Berlusconi, showgirls or no showgirls, has started on a downward slope. A cycle is over,” commented Toto Cuffaro, a former Berlusconi loyalist and ex-governor of Sicily.

Mr Lombardo is joined by Gianfranco Micciche, a senior cabinet official and architect of the Sicilian “61-0” victory of 2001. His position on the Cipe committee that approves infrastructure spending led to the revelation that money had been diverted.

Commentators suggest that the “eminence grise” behind the rebels is Marcello Dell’Utri, a former top executive in Mr Berlusconi’s business empire. Both Mr Dell’Utri and Mr Cuffaro remain senators while appealing against jail sentences imposed by courts for alleged Mafia ties.

Meanwhile Stefania Prestigiacomo, minister of environment and a Sicilian, is fuming that her powers have been downgraded on the issue of nuclear development.

Mr Berlusconi yesterday summoned five key ministers to try to quell the revolt by producing a “plan for the south” and a possible role for Mr Micciche.

Mr Berlusconi was earlier quoted as saying he would free up 18bn euros from the special fund to focus on infrastructure. But an opposition-backed institute, Nens, crunched numbers and concluded that only 3.2bn euros of the seven-year fund had not been allocated.

The crisis has unleashed a stream of polemics over why the south and its 21m inhabitants – more than a third of Italy — lag so far behind the rest.

“A river of money wasted,” screamed Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the prime minister’s brother, claiming that the south had 180bn euros in special funding – including 145bn from the European Union – for the period 2000 to 2013.

Per capita GDP in the south is 58.6 per cent of the centre-north and 700,000 people have left since 1997, according to Svimez, an association for industrial development. Official figures say unemployment is running at 12.2 per cent in the south and 4.5 per cent in the north.

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily and his military campaign against the Bourbons that led to the founding in 1861 of the Kingdom of Italy, under the Savoys of the north.

Politicians are already arguing over how these events should be marked. Governing Italy was like running two countries, one senior official remarked. “Bavaria in the north and Turkey in the south.”

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