VITTORIO SBARDELLA was one of the most representative and picturesque elements of the crooked old Christian Democrat power system in Italy. And yet, with his bald, neckless head pressed straight into his barrel chest and his large hands, Sbardella looked more like a gorilla than the typical unctuous Christian Democrat politician. Italian journalists had nicknamed him 'Lo Squalo' ('The Shark'), on account of his voracious hunger for bribes and his ruthlessness in dealing with opponents. It was no secret, and hardly a surprise that, in the mid-Fifties, Sbardella had first appeared on the political scene as a neo-Fascist thug.
At the end of the Sixties, Sbardella had fallen on hard times. Already in his mid-thirties, he was barely able to find work as a salesman of cooking-gas cylinders and as a baker in small towns on the outskirts of Rome.
Sbardella re-emerged from obscurity in 1970, when a former neo-Fascist comrade hired him to put up electoral posters for the Christian Democrats. Sbardella became a faithful supporter of the former Christian Democrat mayor of Rome Amerigo Petrucci, rising through the ranks to become his right-hand man. From Petrucci, Sbardella learnt that 'personal contacts' were of vital importance. He also learnt that politics was an expensive business, that it took money to buy votes and political alliances and that, in return for the authorisation to open a shop or a building permit, grateful 'friends' in the retail and construction business would provide generous rewards.
During the next 10 years, Sbardella slowly built up an intricate web of contacts and supporters in Rome and its surroundings. His successes had not gone unnoticed by the wily old fox Giulio Andreotti, always on the lookout for new allies to increase the strength of his own faction within the Christian Democrat party. At the beginning of the 1980s Sbardella joined the ranks along with other dubious supporters, like Salvo Lima, Andreotti's proconsul in Sicily, long suspected of links to the Mafia.
Soon after, when his men played a key role in winning back the mayor's office, ending years of domination by the hated 'Reds', Sbardella became a favourite of the more conservative elements of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Rome. Sbardella's generous contributions to appropriate Church projects were greatly appreciated, as was the fact that thanks to his good offices, co-operatives run by the group Communione e Liberazione (CL) were able to secure contracts to provide lunches and services to municipal schools on a regular basis. Sbardella also financed CL's weekly magazine, Il Sabato. Sbardella's generosity was rewarded with precious votes and permitted him to establish useful relations with Rome's Cardinal- Vicar Ugo Poletti and Pope John Paul II's personal secretary, Stanislaus Dziwisz.
In 1987, thank to his extensive web of 'personal contacts', Sbardella was elected to Parliament with 127,000 votes. Through the control of huge public-works contracts, Sbardella was able to increase his power in Rome and extend his empire throughout the region. Sbardella's 'friends' were dispensed from presenting competing bids and directly awarded important public works contracts.
In 1990, after local papers named his wife and son in connection with some shady business dealings, Sbardella's fortunes started to decline. In March 1992, the Euro MP Salvo Lima, his last friend in Andreotti's camp, was killed by the Mafia and, two months later, Sbardella broke off all links with the Christian Democrat leader. Soon after, magistrates investigating the Roman side of the 'Clean Hands' corruption scandal had ensnared Sbardella in their net and he was abandoned by his supporters, who fled to join the rising stars of the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi and the neo-
Fascist leader Gianfranco Fini.
A few months ago, Sbardella made his last public appearance, at the public prosecutor's office. The once proud Shark, already engaged in his losing battle with cancer, appeared gaunt, a ghost of his former self. The reign of the last 'King of Rome' had lasted six years and now it was over. Perhaps, Sbardella had provided the best portrait of himself at the time that he claimed, in his colourful Roman dialect: 'Ho detto che so' cattolico. Non d'esse santo.' 'I said I'm a Catholic, not a Saint'.