Dark forces 'targeting Italian President': Since fresh elections have been announced, tension has grown over fears of a plot to undermine the state, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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IS THERE a mole in the Quirinale, the Italian President's office, working for the murky forces that want to stop Italy holding fresh elections?

Plots, or at least claims of plots, have abounded both in parliament and behind the scenes, to prevent elections that would sweep away the disgraced old political world and probably remove the last shreds of protection from the shady networks wielding sinister power within it - deviant secret agents, conspiratorial Masons, and the Mafia.

Nevertheless, Italian viewers were shaken on Wednesday night by a disclosure that President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro had received a chilling threat to his beloved daughter Marianna and that several of his closest aides could have been involved.

The episode had its origins at a dinner during an official visit to Finland in September, when the widowed President was given a gift for his daughter who, although Italy's First Lady, was not with him. Mr Scalfaro's wife had died giving birth to Marianna, he had brought her up himself and the two are very close. In a little speech of thanks he said his daughter was 'what I hold dearest and most sacred in the world'.

Five days later a sinister organisation, the Falange Armata, or Armed Falange, called an Italian news agency demanding that the President 'make a decision . . . otherwise we will be forced to strike at what he holds dearest and most sacred'. The 'decision' was not specified.

The use of that phrase would appear to indicate the presence of a mole among the President's own staff or, less likely, among journalists with the President who were played a tape of his remarks at the dinner but, as far as is known, did not report it. Rome magistrates are already investigating a number of security service officials on suspicion of making anonymous telephone calls in the name of the Armed Falange, but the organisation remains mysterious. The security services are also believed to have spied on Italian heads of state in the past, and not just for security reasons.

At the same time, the President has been the subject of repeated allegations that he and other former interior ministers regularly took illegal payments from the slush fund of the security service. The allegations were made by a group of former senior security service officials charged with having appropriated huge sums from the slush fund. Significantly, or so it would seem, the allegations have been aired again and again at key moments in the difficult period leading to the President's dissolution of parliament and the announcement of elections on 27 March.

As head of state, the President is above the law. He therefore cannot be prosecuted, but nor can he defend himself. He has made it clear that he regards the allegations as a plot to make him resign and thus foil plans for fresh elections, and is resisting.

Marianna herself has been the victim of insinuations, through photographs, that she was linked with an architect now suspected of having murky connections with the secret services. They proved untrue.

On Tuesday the President's nerves seemed to give. At the opening of the academic year in one of Rome's universities a female student publicly and unexpectedly demanded that he resign. He went to the microphone and, in an outburst that some critics feel he should not have made, thumping his fist he claimed that 'everything, everything has been done' to him personally to stop him calling the elections. It would have been easier for him to resign and avoid being put through the 'grinder' of suspicions, he declared.

The atmosphere in the Quirinale is said to be extremely tense, and security measures surrounding the President have been stepped up. It is now being suggested that, once the elections are out of the way, President Scalfaro will indeed resign, although an opinion poll has found that 55 per cent of the public say he should not. Newspapers are already speculating on a possible successor.