An Italian woman who has been in hiding from the mafia for 27 years and unable to show her face publicly was elected as an MP for the Five Star Movement, encapsulating the extraordinary triumph of the anti-establishment party in the country’s elections.
Piera Aiello, who was dubbed “the candidate without a face” by the Italian press, won 51 per cent of the vote in her constituency in Sicily, despite being unable to meet voters and campaign in the streets and piazzas.
The 51-year-old ran her campaign largely through television interviews, but had to conceal her face with a scarf for fear of reprisals by the mob.
Despite the obstacles, she won a resounding victory in her constituency around the town of Marsala in western Sicily, winning 20 points more than her nearest rival.
“It was the culmination of a surreal election campaign,” one newspaper observed.
Ms Aiello grew up in western Sicily, where as a teenager she met a boy who happened to be the son of a local Cosa Nostra boss.
She was later forced to marry the boy by his father. When the mafia don was murdered, the son vowed to avenge him.
But before he could take the law into his own hands, a rival clan gunned him down in cold blood in 1991.
Ms Aiello fled Sicily and became a “pentita” or state witness, giving the authorities information about her husband’s family and its criminal activities.
That made her a target for assassination by Cosa Nostra and she was forced into hiding, living under police protection.
One of the investigating magistrates she collaborated with, Paolo Borsellino, was blown up by the mafia in a car bombing in 1992.
Now that she has been elected, her life is about to change radically.
“I’m going to come out of hiding. It will be like seeing the light again,” she told the Italian press.
The startling success of Five Star was illustrated by another unusual case.
A candidate in the Marche region of central Italy was caught up in an expenses scandal that broke before the election.
Andrea Cecconi was suspended from Five Star but it was too late to take him off the ballot.
Despite withdrawing from the campaign, and being dubbed “the ghost candidate”, he ended up being elected with a resounding 35 per cent of the vote.
He managed to beat a formidable opponent – Marco Minniti, the interior minister and the architect of deals with Libya that have been credited with drastically cutting the number of migrant boats reaching Italy.
Mr Minniti is from the governing centre-Left Democratic Party (PD), which suffered a debacle in the election and won just 19 per cent of votes.
Now in a deep existential crisis, the party is in danger of tearing itself apart over whether to forge an alliance with Five Star so that a government can be formed.
Neither the Five Star Movement nor the centre-Right coalition won enough votes to form a government, leaving the PD as a potential kingmaker.
Matteo Renzi, who has announced he will resign as head of the party but not until a new government is formed, is implacably opposed to a deal with Five Star, saying they hold “extremist” views on Europe, immigration and other issues.
"They’re anti-European, anti-political and have used a language of hatred," Mr Renzi wrote on Facebook. "They said we were corrupt, mafiosi, and that we have blood on our hands because of immigration. I don’t think they’ve changed their mind overnight."
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But others within the Democratic Party are in favour of a coalition with Five Star, should the opportunity arise. Michele Emiliano, a party heavyweight and the governor of the southern region of Puglia, suggested the party could offer "external support" to a Five Star government.
Across the country, Five Star performed far better than expected, taking 32 per cent of the vote, making them the most popular party by a wide margin and transforming the political landscape.
The Eurosceptic party’s success was fueled by voters’ anger and disillusion towards established parties, frustration over the slow pace of economic recovery and dismay over youth unemployment that in some regions exceeds 50 per cent.
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It also dangled the promise of a guaranteed minimum wage of 780 euros a month, despite economists saying it would cost the country around 15 billion euros a year and was unlikely to be implemented.
While Five Star swept to victory across southern Italy, the north of the country supported a centre-Right coalition consisting of the hard-Right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which secured 37 per cent of the vote.
The geographical divide was personified by the leaders of the two rival parties – Matteo Salvini, 44, of The League is from Milan, while Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio, 31, is from near Naples.
The split could aggravate traditional antagonism between the affluent north and the struggling south or “Mezzogiorno”.