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As the euro crisis drags on, some are beginning to call Sicily the Greece of Italy. That's because Sicily's economy is based on patronage, and because Italy's central government fears a Sicilian default on a $6 billion debt could further endanger the financial stability of the entire country. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Palermo, Rome is dictating tough bailout conditions on Sicily, very much like those that the international lenders have imposed on Greece.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The atrium of this regional government office building is bustling with mostly idle workers. They belong to an army of 144,000 public sector employees among a population of five million. Their ranks include 26,000 forestry rangers, more than Canada's British Columbia. The budget to pay for all these people is four times that of Lombardy, the northern region whose population is double Sicily's.

Andrea Vecchio is a businessman and a prominent anti-Mafia activist. He was recently recruited to cut waste from the regional budget. He was shocked by what he found.

ANDREA VECCHIO: (Through translator) There are some 2,200 managers, some of whom have a staff of no more than two or three people. They were not promoted for merit, but because each has a political sponsor.

POGGIOLI: The system is known as clientilism.

EMANUELE LAURIA: The politician give work, and the citizen give vote.

POGGIOLI: Emanuele Lauria is co-author of a book on waste and privileges in Sicily.

LAURIA: And now the problem is that the money is finished. The cash is empty. Yes.

POGGIOLI: The debt crisis is undermining the traditional jobs-for-votes exchange that kept conservative parties in power in Sicily for six decades.

Businessman Andrea Vecchio says this entrenched system was conceived as part of the country's national reconstruction plan.

VECCHIO: (Through translator) After World War II, the powers that be decided that the north would be the productive part of the country, with industries and infrastructure, and the south would be the state-subsidized consumer.

POGGIOLI: The division also ensured that Sicily would remain Italy's poorest region, with hardly any manufacturing industries. Economic isolation also favored the growth of Mafia influence in politics.

The current governor is under investigation for Mafia ties, while his predecessor is serving a seven-year jail term for the same crime.

Now, the eurozone crisis has brought austerity. Unemployment is nearly 20 percent, twice the national average, and almost 40 percent among the young.

The European Union is demanding that 600 million euro be returned after its development funds were misspent on frivolous projects in Sicily, like couscous festivals and fencing matches.

It's now crunch time, and many public-sector workers are taking to the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: The slogans at a recent protest rally were directed at the central government: Keep your hands off Sicily. We want to be our own master.

On an island that has long nurtured separatist aspirations, demonstrators worry that the central government will take advantage of the financial crisis to curb the island's semi-autonomous status.

Carmelo Buschera belongs to a pro-independence movement.

CARMELO BUSCHERA: (Through translator) We see the Mediterranean area as our world, not Italy. It is Italy that wants to impose itself on Sicily. Sicily is seeking its freedom, either through more autonomy or independence.

POGGIOLI: A new group calling itself Pitchforks shares the anger and ideas of the U.S. Occupy movement. Their vice president, Giuseppe Scarlata, says Sicily needs an entirely new political establishment.

GIUSEPPE SCARLATA: (Through translator) They must all go. Do you realize that out of 90 regional deputies, 27 are under investigation for ties to the Mafia?

POGGIOLI: Scarlata has few illusions that it will be easy to change Sicily's political culture, but he's convinced that the current crisis and tough austerity measures will have at least one positive effect: They'll help rid Sicily of a parasitic economic system based mainly on exchange of favors.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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