Graft debacle leads to punch-up in Italy's parliament

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The Independent Online
THE STORM over the Italian government's abortive attempt to curb magistrates' powers degenerated into fisticuffs on the floor of parliament yesterday as deputies from the governing coalition went for each other during a debate over the debacle.

Ushers threw themselves between a deputy from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and his supposed colleague from the Northern League as they began shoving each other furiously. Other deputies then piled in. The scuffle broke out after another Forza Italia MP, Pietro Di Muccio, said that it was 'better to allow a thousand criminals to go free than to have a single innocent man in jail'. He was speaking during a session called to vote down an emergency decree issued last week which removed magistrates' powers to place corruption suspects in preventive detention.

Mr Di Muccio's invocation of the highest principles of justice to defend a manoeuvre seen as letting hundreds of corrupt politicians and businessmen off the hook brought howls of fury from his League 'colleagues' and ironic applause and cheers from the opposition.

Mr Berlusconi agreed to kill off his decree on Tuesday after the resignation of the country's top anti-graft investigators, a public outcry and a revolt by his allies, the League and the National Alliance. But the squabbles over the still-warm corpse have continued, culminating in yesterday's chaos.

The government is also involved in a highly damaging battle of words with the judiciary over the issue. Yesterday the vice-president of the magistrates' governing council, Giovanni Galloni, hit back at Mr Berlusconi's criticism of the way the 'clean-hands' magistrates had acted in the row. 'It is the first time that a prime minister has attacked the judiciary so openly, accusing it of . . . illegal behaviour; not only in the history of our republic, but in the history of Italy,' he said. Mr Galloni was defending a motion passed by the magistrates' council on Wednesday censuring the decree.

The Italian President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, was drawn into the row after an incensed Mr Berlusconi asked him to reprimand the council.

The President duly obliged, reminding the judiciary that it had no right to express political opinions. 'We were merely defending ourselves against attack,' Mr Galloni retorted yesterday.

The government can ill afford both a protracted struggle between executive and judiciary and internecine warfare. Yesterday the government was supposed to publish details of its 1995 budget and long-term economic policy. Instead, a serious split has emerged between Mr Berlusconi's economic team, which favours savage spending cuts in order to curb the ballooning budget deficit, and ministers who fear that this would cause disastrous social unrest. The Labour Minister, Clemente Mastella, has made no secret of his opposition to deep cuts in Italy's generous state pensions, seen as vital to bring public spending under control. 'If we can manage to pass the budget, and things don't fall apart, which cannot be ruled out, the government will last until local elections next spring. There are 10 crucial months in which to establish a political majority which does not exist at the moment. It's that or hell,' he said in an interview with the daily La Stampa yesterday.

Mr Berlusconi seemed less than conciliatory yesterday when he told journalists that he had been appallingly treated by the media over the decree row. 'They turned something done in perfectly good faith on its head. But it won't end like this. From Monday I will start explaining to the Italians what really happened. This business will boomerang on many people.'