'Devilish plots' in Italian campaign

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ITALY'S magistrates, doggedly pursuing their corruption investigations through the election campaign, have landed in a minefield. Each arrest, each new investigation is triggering off accusations of bias, even devilish political plots, from left or right - both of which are thought to have skeletons in their cupboards.

'It will be the first election to be decided by handcuffs,' grumbled an old Socialist, Ugo Intini. And while he - one of the few remaining supporters of the ultra-investigated former prime minister Bettino Craxi - would perhaps prefer no handcuffs at all, he echoes much more widespread fears that events on the judicial front could sway the vote.

The issue came to a head with the arrest on Friday of Paolo Berlusconi, brother of Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate-turned-politician who has effectively taken over leadership of the right and whose Forza Italia has rapidly become the biggest party. There is no indication that Silvio himself is under suspicion, even though he is the mastermind of the Berlusconi empire, but the tycoon has declared that his brother's troubles are really 'aimed at me'. Roberto Maroni, a leader of the Northern League - now Mr Berlusconi's allies - has said: 'Those who still hold the reins of power have seen that this alliance can become the new government. And they don't want it to happen.'

At the same time, a senior Fiat manager, Antonio Mosconi, was put under house arrest for allegedly passing 200m lire ( pounds 80,000) of bribes to an MEP of the former Communist Democratic Party of the Left, destined for the election campaign of Massimo d'Alema, the party's moustachioed number two. Meanwhile, Sergio Cusani, the financier who allegedly organised some of the largest bribes by big industrialists to the parties, particularly the Socialists, has repeated his allegations to a Milan court that the late Raul Gardini, former chief of the Montedison chemical giant, paid 1bn lire to the PDS to soften its opposition to an important deal with the government. And Mr Craxi weighed in last week with his own allegations about supposedly illegal finances of the PDS which he handed to the Milan prosecutors.

Mr d'Alema did not pronounce the word 'plot', but his meaning was clear: 'Democracy in our country is in danger. This slander can destroy a state based on law . . . This infamy does not have to lead to a trial, it only needs to last until 27 March (election day). If things go on like this it would be better not to have elections. We have to react to this disgusting business.'

Francesco Saverio Borrelli, Milan's chief public prosecutor, has insisted 'we have to move according to developments. We cannot alter the speed of investigations.' Gerardo d'Ambrosio, the co-ordinator of the 'Clean Hands' team of anti-corruption magistrates, said 'we cannot stop investigations or let them be influenced by the political timetable. We can take this into account, certainly, but only to a certain extent . . . we must be careful to preserve the image of an impartial judiciary, totally above party politics.'

Giovanni Conso, the Justice Minister and himself a former senior judge, appealed for confidence in the magistrates. 'The investigations must take their course,' he told a conference at the weekend. There was a risk that they could influence the electoral campaign, but this was inevitable.

Enrico Mentana, head of news programmes on one of Mr Berlusconi's television channels, has suggested a moratorium on arrests in the two weeks before the elections. Something like this may happen anyway: the flurry of arrests and notifications to suspects after municipal elections last year indicated clearly that the magistrates had held off for at least a few days so as not to influence the vote.