When an Italian journalist launched his bid to become a mayor in Sicily in 2017 he did not expect his campaign trail to lead him to a dimly-lit basement for a negotiation on vote-buying with a mafia boss.
Ismaele La Vardera’s run for the mayoralty of Palermo ended in crushing defeat - but secretly recorded footage of his campaign is set to electrify the country when it is released as a documentary film next month in an expose of the seamy underbelly of Italian politics.
La Vardera, 22, who ran on an independent ticket, is promising an “x-ray of power like you’ve never seen it before” after being asked to strike deals with both the right-wing ruling League and Sicily’s powerful criminals during his campaign for office.
The deal-making involved a secretly-recorded two-hour meeting with deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, whose right-wing party was looking for a powerful ally in the island that is best-known for its powerful mafia. La Vardera declined to reveal what was said during the meeting before the release of the film “Italian Politics” next month.
The film also details his meeting with a relative of the imprisoned mafia boss Gino “U Mitra” Abbate in the basement of an apartment building in Palermo. “What was striking was that I had been brought there by a politician,” the journalist said.
There, he was offered a deal: 300 votes in the district will cost him €30 each. “Here we decide who people will vote for, otherwise they don’t vote,” the mafia contact told him.
“I thought we had moved on from that,” said La Vardera.
The documentary also sheds light on how Salvatore Cuffaro – a former governor of Sicily who served almost five years in jail for aiding the mafia organization Cosa Nostra – is still holding the reins of Italian politics in the south. "He was directing the elections as if he was the screenwriter in a movie," La Vardera told The National.
In a scene filmed in Mr Cuffaro’s home, the convicted politician tries to convince La Vardera to support the candidate running with another party, Forza Italia.
In exchange, he offers a position in local government or in a coalition party in the next round of national elections.
“If you play with us, I will do what it takes so that you’ll be elected,” he said.
When the journalist later revealed having recorded the conversation, Mr Cuffaro expressed confidence that business would go on as usual.
“There are already tonnes of wiretaps about me in court. The conversations you have recorded between me and you, will not change anything,” he said.
The secret filming has raised ethical questions about La Vardera’s motives and a judge had been asked to rule whether it was lawful to run a campaign for the purposes of making a film.
An Italian judge has since ruled that the campaign was authentic and that the decision to film came after he became a candidate.
“I hope the documentary will spark debate and lead people to reflect on who they are voting for,” said La Vardera.
He secured a meagre 2.7 per cent of the vote at the June 2017 election.