Craxi vote threatens Ciampi government: Four new ministers resign as Italian parliament blocks trial of former PM

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ITALY'S transitional government was in danger last night, only 12 hours after it was sworn in, when much-needed support vanished in an explosion of rage and disgust over the Chamber of Deputies' vote to bar prosecution of Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister.

The three ministers from the ex-Communists' Democratic Party of the Left and their colleague from the Greens resigned, and the two parties announced they would not support the government. The 'scandalous' and 'intolerable' vote 'was intended to foil the change to a new kind of politics, prevent the emergence of clean and competent people and the chance of managing the transition democratically,' said Achille Occhetto, the former Communists' leader. 'It has created disaster, it is destabilising democracy.'

The anti-Mafia reform group La Rete suspended its participation in parliament, saying it 'does not want to be mixed up in the morass of the regime of corruption'. The Northern League and a chorus of smaller parties loudly demanded immediate elections, declaring parliament no longer represented the Italian public.

The vote will be seen by many as proof that, despite the overwhelming vote for change in the recent referendum, the discredited old political class was clinging to its privileges. But members of the traditional ruling parties alleged opposition members had secretly voted against prosecuting Mr Craxi to discredit parliament and precipitate fresh elections.

A huge scrum developed amid the benches of the Chamber of Deputies as ushers struggled to keep apart enraged members after the votes. Parliament's switchboard was jammed with protest calls, many of them in response to a protest appeal by a private radio station, while about 1,000 people protested outside the Palace of Justice in Milan shouting 'parliament teaches us stealing is not a crime.' More demonstrations were called for today in Milan and Rome.

In a series of six votes the Chamber of Deputies refused to waive Mr Craxi's immunity and allow his prosecution on corruption charges brought by Milan magistrates and for receiving stolen property. They gave their consent on lesser corruption charges laid in Rome and on accusations of violating the law on party financing. Mr Craxi, who had become almost a symbol of the scandals that have brought the old party system crashing down, had been charged on 41 different counts and further requests for authorisation to proceed are in the pipeline.

The votes effectively put a stop to further investigations against Mr Craxi by the Milan magistrates, who had first uncovered the vast alleged practice by parties of demanding rake-offs on public contracts. Francesco Saverio Borrelli, Milan's chief public prosecutor, said the vote was 'disconcerting' and that 'it seems designed with the purpose of saving the members of parliament from the possibility of being found guilty'.

The Socialists, Mr Craxi's own party, insisted parliament had voted in 'complete freedom of conscience' and that what had happened was not linked in any way to the new government. But individual Christian Democrats and the party's organ, Il Popolo, called it a 'grave mistake'.

Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the Bank of Italy governor who had been sworn in as Prime Minister only that morning, rushed back into his office after the vote and issued a statement saying the government was 'extraneous' to what had happened in the Chamber.

(Photograph omitted)