Massimo d'Alema, the party's number two, and several other leaders of what is now called the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) were reported to have been entered by Rome public prosecutors in the list of suspects to be investigated.
The move, which was not confirmed or denied by the magistrates, was the result of a long 'denunciation' of the party's allegedly illegal finances by disgraced former Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi. Mr Craxi, who is accused on scores of corruption counts and is due to go on trial next month, has made no secret of his resentment that his old rivals the PDS had survived to become - until recently - Italy's biggest party while the parties that held power in the past have been virtually destroyed by corruption scandals.
A number of PDS members have been under investigation for many months for allegedly receiving bribes or illegally procuring funds and Mr Craxi's accusations appeared to concern cases already under examination.
But the issue has become explosive because of the poll campaign.
Mr d'Alema went to the Rome chief public prosecutor, Vittorio Mele, yesterday to lay libel charges against Mr Craxi. 'I want those who use slander as a political tactic to be prosecuted,' he said. 'Craxi has acted to take revenge against those who fought him, and to give a hand to those who were his friends.' He was apparently referring to media tycoon turned right- wing politician Silvio Berlusconi, a close friend of Mr Craxi, who is waging a strongly anti-communist campaign.
Achille Occhetto, the PDS leader, said Mr Craxi was 'an unemployed politician' with nothing better to do than tout his claims around the judiciary in the hope of smearing the party. 'He wants to stir up a storm for a couple of weeks to trouble the waters of the election campaign.'
Mr Craxi retorted that Messrs Occhetto and d'Alema were 'two big liars' and declared that he would hold a press conference today or tomorrow in which he had 'many things to say'.
The stir arose just as Paolo Berlusconi, Silvio's brother, was released after five days' house arrest on suspicion of corruption. He allegedly confessed to Milan magistrates that he had paid kickbacks to the Christian Democrats and the Socialists through a savings bank in exchange for a big real-estate deal. His brother's allies charged - and the magistrates denied - that the arrest was linked to the election campaign.
The former communists, barred from power on the national level since the war - though not from regional or local government - had always claimed that they were 'different' from other parties and had clean hands. But the massive corruption investigations have turned up a number of allegations that kickbacks were paid to the party for certain contracts, or to induce it not to oppose pieces of legislation. The scale of the alleged corruption however was nowhere near that of the former ruling parties.
Investigations into the former communists' many and sometimes questionable sources of funding have proved difficult and have caused sharp controversies among the magistrates themselves. 'Different' the party's finances certainly were: their methods, commented the left-wing l'Espresso 'were incredibly more sophisticated than the rest'.