Coup alarm sounds in weakened Italy: President Scalfaro cancels foreign visits as fears of a take-over grow

FEARS are being raised here that Italy, in its weak and disoriented state, may fall victim to an authoritarian takeover or a coup d'etat. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro has postponed two state visits to remain in the country.

The alarm is being sounded in the midst of the most sensitive phase yet of Italy's democratic revolution, with Giuliano Amato's government severely weakened by its attempt to save corrupt politicians from jail; once-powerful politicians disgraced, embittered and frightened; the public demanding full justice and a total change.

A further blow to the government came yesterday when another member, the Agriculture Minister, Gianni Fontana, resigned after being notified he was under investigation on suspicion of corruption. He is the fifth minister to step down.

The concern was prompted by a bizarre succession of events set off by Francesco Cossiga, the previous president, whose violent outbursts against things he disapproved of made him highly controversial. In an interview with the daily La Stampa, he said he would 'absolutely, definitely' refuse to become prime minister, then proceeded to outline a hypothetical scenario under which he would accept.

This was if 'a minister was assassinated on the steps of parliament . . . town halls in the south were set on fire, if crowds of hooligans tried, with complicity from inside, to storm Montecitorio (the lower house of parliament) forcing the carabinieri to drown the revolt in blood . . .'

He added: 'We must not behave like ostriches. The country wants the gallows, it wants summary justice, something violent that will sweep the corrupt and compromised ruling class away for ever.' Mr Amato's government, he said, 'is ridiculous . . . it has failed, it has been disastrous'.

'Legions' of people were begging him to come back, he said. His conditions also included 'a decree in my pocket to dissolve parliament' and carte blanche for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution.

Mr Cossiga's scenario caused concern. 'Someone could get funny ideas,' said the Defence Minister, Salvo Ando. 'I consider it an incitement to an authoritarian take-over,' said Massimo d'Alema, the former Communists' floor leader. 'There is a whiff of a right-wing coup.'

Two politicians in trouble tended to confirm the fears. Giulio Di Donato, the former Socialist deputy secretary, said: 'The movement around Cossiga is only the work of desperate people. But desperation is brewing . . . Cossiga is perhaps the only one who could rein in the magistrates and the plotters.' 'People here can't take it any more,' added Socialist Paolo Cirino Pomicino, apparently referring to parliament. 'Someone is preparing a violent outcome.'

Soon after the interview two sensational reports were circulated, their sources a mystery. One was that President Scalfaro, increasingly the mainstay of democratic stability, had allegedly taken illegal funds - flatly denied by Milan's chief public prosecutor. Then Mr Amato was reported to have tried to resign last week and to have been prevented by the President. Mr Amato furiously denounced the report as the work of 'intriguers'.

Italy itself does not seem particularly tense or endangered. Most commentators agree that it is perfectly capable of reforming its political system by constitutional means. Nevertheless, President Scalfaro's postponement of state visits to Denmark and Finland, officially because he wants to be in the country for the campaign for the 18 April referendum on electoral reform, is being seen as a sign of watchfulness at a sensitive time.