Italian Elections: Ex-Communists deny E German cash links

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The Independent Online
ROME - Italy's former Communists - among the front- runners in next week's general elections - angrily denied yesterday that they had illegally received money from East Germany during the Cold War.

The issue, which threatens to tarnish the carefully nurtured clean image of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), returned to haunt party leaders this week when newspapers published details of alleged payments through banks in Berlin and Lugano, Switzerland. Quoting a Berlin police official, they said the party had received 'countless sums in both German marks and US dollars', that broke laws on political financing.

A PDS spokeswoman said the accusations were old and had all been responded to before. 'There's absolutely nothing new in all this,' she said. 'We have already categorically denied any wrongdoing.'

Most of Italy's traditional political parties have been decimated by a two-year corruption scandal which has revealed how they took huge sums of money from businessmen in return for government contracts.

But the Italian Communist Party (PCI), predecessor of the PDS, was frozen out of power for 45 years and has remained largely untarnished.

Another potentially uncomfortable investigation for the PDS continued on Monday with the questioning by magistrates of Giuliano Peruzzi, a financier, about allegations that he may have channelled money to the party.

Mr Peruzzi has alleged in newspaper interviews that the Communists and their old enemies, the once-dominant Christian Democrats (DC), met secretly to share bribes extracted in exchange for public contracts.

Meanwhile, the respected Eurispes research institute said yesterday that the Mafia controlled up to 400,000 votes in Sicily, or 10 per cent of the electorate on the island.

'This is a real army capable of exercising pressure and conditioning the electoral direction,' the institute said in a study. It said the 45,000 members of Sicily's 150 Mafia families could influence between 350,000 and 400,000 votes, mostly through their control of those involved in drug trafficking and extortion rackets.

Sicily has a population of some 5 million people, nearly 4.3 million of them eligible voters, according to officials.

The issue of Mafia influence on Sunday's elections, the most important in Italy for 45 years, exploded last week after allegations by the Interior Minister, Nicola Mancino, that organised crime supported the media mogul and right-wing leader Silvio Berlusconi.

The most recent polls, 10 days ago, predicted that Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Come On, Italy) party would win some 25 per cent of the national vote, making it the election front-runner. Mr Berlusconi has branded Mr Mancini's allegations as 'base and shameful lies'.

Achille Occhetto, the leader of the PDS and front-runner until Mr Berlusconi entered the fray two months ago, alleged that a crime boss in the southern Calabria region had put out the word to vote Forza Italia.

Palermo's anti-Mafia Mayor, Leoluca Orlando, an Occhetto ally in the left's 'Progressives' alliance, has said men with known links to the Mob were behind Forza Italia.

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