Yesterday, a Palermo judge decided to send the man who has seven times been Italy's prime minister to trial - in September - for consorting with the Mafia.
Mr Andreotti helped to draw up the Italian constitution, has served in every parliament since 1946, and was in and out of ministerial office for 45 years. In many ways his ready smile, foxlike expression and sinister stooping figure sum up both the deceptive outward charm and inner cunning of a whole generation. For years he was Italy's most popular politician, and persistent rumours about his dubious political methods and insalubrious friends were no more irritating to him than a mosquito in the hot Roman summer air. To bring him to book now is perhaps the most spectacular of ways Italy could break with the old political order. Like England or France disposing of their kings in centuries past, the country is killing its symbolic father.
But this is no straightforward settling of scores. Behind the symbolism is alarmingly compelling evidence not only about Mr Andreotti but about the whole relationship between politicians and organised crime in post- war Italy. What the 80,000 pages of prosecutors' evidence show is that Mr Andreotti's party, the Christian Democrats, systematically recruited and nurtured ties with members of Cosa Nostra, the lite secret society at the heart of the Mafia.
The Mafia used its networks of extortionists to win seats and clientelistic influence for the party. In return the party protected the Mafia from the justice system and lobbied in parliament for its economic interests.
Mr Andreotti, says the prosecution, was Cosa Nostra's main reference point in Rome and leant on the Supreme Court to go easy on Mafia defendants. In the Seventies and Eighties, he controlled the Christian Democrat party machine in Sicily via a powerful local politician called Salvo Lima. He, in turn, had been in league with the criminal underworld since the mid-Fifties. Mr Andreotti is also said to have nurtured a close relationship with two Christian Democrat grandees in Palermo, Nino and Ignazio Salvo, both now dead, who doubled as Cosa Nostra's most powerful "tax collectors" - a euphemism for extortion on behalf of the Mob.
Former mafiosi now living under special witness protection schemes have testified to meetings between Mr Andreotti and two of Cosa Nostra's most powerful leaders - Stefano Bontate, considered "capo dei capi" in the early Eighties, and his successor ``Toto'' Riina, the "beast of Corleone". At a secret Palermo meeting in September 1987, Riina and Mr Andreotti are alleged to have exchanged a kiss of respect.
The case against Mr Andreotti is based on the testimony of pentiti, "repentant" mafiosi who have agreed to break the Mob's fabled code of silence and co-operate with the law in exchange for security for themselves and their families. Two, including Riina's former driver, Baldassare Di Maggio, have given eyewitness testimony, while about 10 others have provided second-hand evidence based on connections in Cosa Nostra which prosecutors consider "of the highest order".
"The evidence of the pentiti is absolutely reliable. There is no reason to cast any doubt on it," says Pino Arlacchi, a leading expert on organised crime andparliamentary anti-Mafia commission vice-president. "These are people who have confessed to dozens of crimes of their own and helped us capture eminent fugitives from justice, including Riina himself."
The emergence of the pentiti and the sweeping away of the old political order have created a unique opportunity in the fight against organised crime. Oncepoliticians such as Mr Andreotti were untouchable because every element of state power, from financial institutions recycling Mafia money to courts, were tied up in the vested interests of the leading political parties. Allegations were rarely proved.
The truth, finally emerging, is that politicians and the Mafia have enjoyed scandalously close links since the republic's establishment. Sicilian peasants were cowed into voting Christian Democrat in the watershed elections of 1948 through sheer intimidation. On May Day 1947, Mafia gangsters used machine-guns on a left-wing march at Portella della Ginestra, killing 11 people and wounding another 55; although it has never been proved, party leaders were suspected of collusion in the attack.
In the Fifties and Sixties, the relationship was consolidated as one party faction, in collusion with the Mob, took control of public appointments as well as key commercial areas including construction, banking and food distribution. Up until that point, the Mafia was no more than a tool of the politicians. Mafia dons would travel from rural fiefdoms into Palermo or, if necessary, to Rome to seek favours. Politicians, in turn, made sure they kept their distance from the underworld's more overt criminal activities.
In the Seventies, that balance changed and the Mafia, vastly enriched by its entry into the international drugs trade, began calling the shots. The creation of regional assemblies, and the increase in special development funds for Sicily, increased opportunities to divert state money into Mafia enterprises, and the politicians obliged.
One of the most recent pentiti, a fully fledged Cosa Nostra member who also served as a Christian Democrat city councillor in Palermo, has testified how in recent years the Mafia even had control over appointments within the party.
Mr Andreotti's defence is based almost entirely on denial. On the notorious Salvo cousins, he said: "I never knew them. I was told they were very respectable ... only latterly I realised they were mafiosi."
On Corrado Carnevale, the Supreme Court president notorious for quashing Mafia sentences, allegedly under Mr Andreotti's influence: "I never met him on his own, only in groups of 20 or 30 people. Maybe his sentences were correct from a technical point of view, even if he split hairs a bit."
And then there is the killing of General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, gunned down in 1982 four months after becoming civil governor in Palermo with a special brief to combat the Mafia.
The first and most authoritative of the Mafia pentiti, Tommaso Buscetta, has testified that Mr Andreotti wanted the general out of the way because he threatened to reveal compromising information about the kidnap and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.
Mr Andreotti dismisses these charges as he dismisses all others. One detects no sign of insincerity; what emerges, though, is a world-view that seems extraordinarily detached from reality. At the height of his popularity Mr Andreotti was admired precisely for his devious political instinct. Now, almost perversely, he describes his career as "transparent".
That is one line not even his most ardent supporters will swallow.Reuse content