A battle against sticky hands

Italy's hopes for a place in Europe's mainstream are being damaged by a political counter-revolution
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In a forlorn corner of central Rome there is a decaying pile of glass and concrete, an enormous hangar of a place once known as the City Air Terminal. It was to be the railway station that linked central Rome with the airport - to ease the passage of visitors to the 1990 World Cup. Construction companies, their agents and their political contacts grew rich on the Air Terminal. Too bad that it was built in the wrong place - close to the main commuter line that runs around the centre of Rome but not actually connected to it, unlike the existing station next door.

The abandoned terminal stands as a dilapidated monument to venality and waste in Italian public life. It is one of many and they are the legacy of tangentopoli, or "bribesville", the era of clientelism and corruption that pushed Italy to the brink of economic and political ruin. It was the trigger for massive anti-corruption investigations conducted by the Milan prosecutor's office which led to the collapse of the country's two most powerful political parties and, ultimately, to the demise of an entire ruling class in politics and state-run industry. It was like a revolution.

The received wisdom now is that tangentopoli is a thing of the past, the regrettable consequence of nearly half a century of one-party rule by the Christian Democrats. Italy is said to be clawing its way towards an alternating system of government between two broad blocs of the right and left, like its stable European partners to the north. The supreme symbol of this new era - known as the Second Republic - was the victory in last year's general election of Italy's principal left-wing party, the successor to the old Communist Party, the PDS. It was the end of 50 years of systematic exclusion from government during the Cold War.

The centre-left coalition was sworn in one year ago today. Many hopes were riding on it. Qualifying Italy for European monetary union and reining in the country's chaotically undisciplined public finances were its main priorities. There were also expectations of a fundamental sea-change in the culture of Italian public life, with fewer rules, less bureaucracy, less waste, a new climate of fairness, equal opportunities and the break- up of the country's near-feudal economic and social fiefdoms.

It hasn't happened.

ROMANO Prodi's government has proved weak, indecisive and just as prone to messy compromise as its predecessors. Out in the country the old mentality which prized power for power's sake is making a comeback. A counter-revolution is taking place.

There was a clear example of this disturbing new mood last month when the chairman of Fiat, Cesare Romiti, received an 18-month suspended prison sentence for his role in setting up an illegal slush fund to pay off politicians at the height of tangentopoli. A few years ago this would have shaken the foundations of Italy's largest private company and all the interests that surround it. But in 1997 the news hardly created a ripple. Mr Romiti did not come under the slightest pressure to resign. Instead, 700 of Turin's finest industrialists met to express faith in Mr Romiti's innocence. Italy's ruling elite said amen.

Perhaps the most revealing comment came from the entrepreneur turned politician Silvio Berlusconi, who did not doubt the facts unearthed by the prosecution but took issue with their interpretation. "I'm sorry about the verdict because I know that for many companies these financial donations are necessary to be able to keep working. We all know this, and especially those of us who have tried to build up a business," said Italy's former prime minister.

Attitudes of this sort have prevented Italy from becoming a properly functioning modern country for the past 50 years. It is the mentality that decides that, since the state and its laws are not a supreme authority, it is permissible to work around them. It is the mentality that has enabled Mr Berlusconi to play politics and keep a straight face, despite the fact that magistrates are crawling all over his Fininvest business empire unearthing evidence of business malpractice.

Above all, it has enabled interested parties to dismiss the anti-corruption magistrates as arrogant and politically interested troublemakers whose attempts to uphold the law operate against the interests of Italy's future.

Ever since the Mani Pulite, or "clean hands", investigations reached their peak in 1993 the magistrature has been an ugly battleground of competing interests and rival concepts of authority in the Italian state. The prosecutor's office in Brescia has opened investigations into the prosecutor's office in Milan, and attacked the hero of Mani Pulite, Antonio Di Pietro, who has since tried a political career but was squeezed out. The prosecutor's office in Milan slung a leading Roman judge with political connections into jail. When magistrates in La Spezia started an inquiry into a new web of corruption centred on the state railways, the case was taken away from them by the prosecutor's office in Perugia and promptly buried.

Politicians, who helped to stir up this civil war, have taken advantage of it by drawing up legislation to reform the judiciary. But instead of attacking the most pressing problems, such as a convoluted trial process and the lack of resources in the fight against organised crime, a cross- party parliamentary committee on constitutional reform has decided to curb the autonomy of the magistrates.

Their proposal is to make political appointees nominated by parliament fill half the seats on the High Council of Magistrates - the profession's governing body. Politicians say this reform would act as a bulwark against abuses within the system, but the message to investigators is clear. "In the past I would have had to think twice before opening an investigation into a politician. Now I'm going to think about it three times, or more likely not think about it at all," said Antonio Ingroia, a prosecutor in Palermo.

As for the backhanders that oiled the old system, the picture is more complicated. In some parts of the country the state bureaucracy is so terrified of being caught breaking the rules that it has ground to a virtual standstill, which only makes informal private arrangements between private companies and elected officials even more tempting. Elsewhere favours are still being handed out, just not so brazenly as before. "It suits entrepreneurs and interest groups to have the centre-left in power because they can be bought off more cheaply," remarked Maria Laura Rodota, a political commentator on the news magazine L'Espresso.

An example of this is Rome's energetic bid for the 2004 Olympic Games, which is backed by the mayor who is a member of the Green Party. Traditionally the Greens oppose big jamborees of this kind for sound environmental reasons, but virtually all the Greens are backing the bid in exchange, apparently, for no more than a handful of prominent jobs on the organising committee.

THERE is, however, still a chance of stopping the counter-revolution, and the weapon is constitutional reform. The cross-party committee reviewing the role of the judiciary is also trying to rewrite the rules of Italian government to give greater powers to the executive, and to devise an electoral system that does not lead to stalemate at every turn. If it is successful the next Italian government might have a strong enough mandate to carry out lasting reforms without falling prey to the smaller parties who make up the balance of power in the Chamber of Deputies.

But there is a snag. Constitutional changes require the kind of political consensus that is unusual in Western countries unless war or revolution provide a catalyst. In order to woo the opposition, Italy's governing parties have been forced to compromise on important issues such as the judiciary - and Mr Berlusconi's dominance of the private-sector airwaves.

As a result the very notion of a bipolar system with government on one side and opposition on the other - the cornerstone of the new political culture - has been dangerously eroded. The question is whether the end will justify the means or if a new constitutional system will be hopelessly compromised by the deals it was necessary to make to create it. This is Italy's greatest dilemma. If things go well in the next few months it may soon be in a position to join the European mainstream, single currency and all. If they go badly we could be seeing a new wave of corruption, and many more useless rail terminals.