One more cappuccino before we go

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Life is not hard on Fulvio. Just before 2pm each weekday he collects his moped from the car park of the regional authority where he works and putters home. My cousin, a middle-ranking civil servant in a prosperous provincial city by the sea, works an orario unico, or single shift, from 8am until 2pm. It's not great money, but it leaves him free to go to the beach after lunch. Some of his colleagues run little businesses in their spare time.

This morning he read the newspapers, did the crossword and caught up on office gossip before tackling some paperwork. Then, at 11am, it was time for the sacrosanct caff at the bar across the road, where they make it the way he likes it - ristretto, thick and strong - just the thing to chase down a leisurely cigarette with colleagues. Back in the office, work was fitted in between social phone calls before he slipped on his rather expensive sports jacket and headed home.

But Fulvio, who at 44 has 20 years of this dolce vita under his belt, is a worried man. The right-wing Freedom Alliance, the winners of last month's elections, have served notice of an administrative purge unprecedented in Italian history. From leading bankers, brooding behind the stone and stucco facade of the central bank in Rome, to the humblest civil servant in his dusty office, the administration is wracked by shivers of alarm. Anxious managers in marbled boardrooms and echoing corridors punch numbers into their mobile phones, trying to reach party secretaries to assure them that they voted for the right and back its policies.

Fulvio, for the moment at least, can continue to take his morning coffee in safety. The cost, both political and economic, of mass state-sector redundancies makes them unlikely. More alarming, as the victors prepare to divide the spoils of power, are signs that they intend to settle old political scores and tame unco-operative public bodies by purging senior management.

'The new government will impose a radical renewal of all the nomenklatura,' declared Gianfranco Fini, a few days after the Alliance - made up of his neo-fascist National Alliance, the federalist Northern League and Forza Italia - swept to victory at the polls.

Alliance advisers are advocating a US-style 'revolving door' system in which an incoming administration brings in its own appointees to replace the previous government's senior management. If this happens, economic experts and some politicians fear financial anarchy and corruption worse than that of the discredited First Republic - but few are willing to speak on the record, citing fears of a blacklist reportedly kept by the government-in-waiting.

One outgoing minister, a highly-respected technocrat in Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi's transitional centre-left government, said the divisione delle spoglie, as the revolving-door system is known, was only feasible within a framework of checks and balances. 'In the US, Congress can block appointments. Our parliament cannot. The introduction of the system here would bring disaster.'

Politically, the tone was set by the first test for the Alliance in the new parliament - the election of the Speakers of the upper and lower chambers. The right imposed its own candidates - the first time in Italy's post-war history that a future government has refused to seek a broad consensus.

The Speakers appoint the heads of Italy's anti-trust commission, its media watchdog, and the governing board of the state television service RAI. The financial and political fortunes of the Alliance's leader and prime minister-in-waiting, Silvio Berlusconi, are built on his vast Fininvest media and retailing empire. Competition between RAI and Berlusconi's television stations has always been fierce, and became hysterical during the election. Berlusconi accused RAI of being a nest of Communists intent on defaming him, and his media lieutenants were licking their lips at the thought of being given free rein to 'reform and streamline' RAI for possible privatisation.

Some reform was overdue. The three RAI channels have been fiefdoms of Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists respectively. But the danger now is that all dissent will be stifled. Giovanni Minoli, the head of RAI's second television channel, voiced the concern of many when he pointed out the impropriety of a prime minister with media interests of his own: 'No prime minister can think of controlling both the government and the media. Berlusconi must prove that he is thinking of the country's interests, not his own. His credibility depends on it.'

Paranoia stalks the RAI studios. 'There is a real feeling of insecurity, of waiting for the axe to fall,' says a colleague. 'We would all be off like a shot if there were anyone else to work for, but Berlusconi's control and influence is enormous. If your name is on the blacklist, the chance of working anywhere in television in Italy is practically zero.'

Another high-profile victim is the Bank of Italy, whose reputation for independence and moral rectitude has saved the country from calamitous runs on the lira in past crises. Its system of internal promotion and governorship for life buttresses its defences against political interference. Mr Ciampi himself was plucked from the governorship to oversee the country's desperately needed economic and political reforms.

The right hinted at a desire to make the bank 'more accountable' before its electoral victory, but afterwards senior members of the Alliance suggested that the current governor should no longer consider that he had a job for life.

Alarm grew when the name of Lamberto Dini, number two in the bank and a close associate of the disgraced former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, was touted by the right as a possible 'superminister' combining Treasury and Budget responsibilities - while retaining his bank post. This would be 'absolutely improper', according to the outgoing minister, and would risk causing a crisis of confidence on the financial markets.

Daniele Pace, an economist with the independent Centre for Economic Research, paraphrases Machiavelli to illustrate the dangers of a hamstrung central bank: 'The Prince always needs money. Do his subjects live better in a world where he can do what he wants to obtain it, or where he is stopped from printing banknotes? Prince Berlusconi will be tempted to do just that.'

Ideologists of the right are casting farther afield, looking to replace managers appointed to oversee the delicate process of easing Italy's industrial dinosaurs out of the state sector. Ironically, says Enrico Pozzetti, a financial analyst, placemen appointed years ago by the corrupt old Christian Democrat party stand a better chance of surviving the purges than keen young technocrats employed only last year by Mr Ciampi's transitional government.

Few dispute that the bloated state sector could do with slimming down. Raffaele Costa, a Forza Italia deputy and hot tip for the Interior Ministry, has made a name for himself in the last year as the scourge of the 'cafe class', the thick swathe of middle-ranking state functionaries such as Fulvio. His campaign was initially welcomed by the long-suffering victims of bureaucracy, but his latest crusade against 120 top civil servants seems certain to run into legal challenges.

Others in Forza Italia, and particularly the National Alliance, have more sinister motives. And then there are favours to repay to the party faithful. If all this merely sounds like a continuation of business as usual under the old party system of the First Republic, there is a vital difference, says Mr Pace. 'While the Christian Democrats and Socialists carved up state appointments between them, they did give the Communist opposition some posts, too. Now a solid right takes all and controls all.' Such is the alarm and disgust in the state sector that even hardened leftists say they would almost rather have the rotten old system back again. 'These new faces are restoring the worst of the old, only more ruthlessly,' says Mr Pozzetti.

The Italian stage appears set for its restoration tragedy. The danger is that, if the right has its way, there may be no one willing to record it.

(Photograph omitted)

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