Italian government tottering

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ITALY'S political scandals yesterday menaced Giuliano Amato's precarious government, which is seeking to remain afloat and decently detached from all the fuss.

The threat comes in the shape of Francesco de Lorenzo, the Liberal Health Minister who is under investigation for buying votes from Neapolitan constituents and their relatives in exchange for jobs or favours. On Wednesday a parliamentary committee voted to lift his immunity, thus paving the way for his formal prosecution.

Although the Chamber has yet to ratify the decision, Mr de Lorenzo's Liberal colleagues furiously accused their coalition partners of betrayal and threatened to quit the government unless Mr Amato publicly supports his minister. They are 17, the government's majority is 16.

The Prime Minister had reportedly planned a reshuffle in which Mr de Lorenzo and other ministers under a shadow would be quietly replaced. (Claudio Martelli, the justice minister who resigned last week after being notified he is under investigation, has already been replaced.) Now he has to think quickly, for he has promised to reply in debate in the Senate this morning.

At the same time prospects for a stronger, broader-based government to replace his four-party one, which would have included the ex-Communists and one or two small opposition parties, faded for lack of any agreement. 'The conditions just don't seem to be there,' said Giorgio La Malfa, the leader of the Republicans.

In Milan meanwhile, Vincenza Tomaselli, 55, the faithful secretary of the discredited former Socialist leader and prime minister, Bettino Craxi, was being grilled in San Vittore jail by magistrates about her role in alleged corruption deals. But unlike many of the other suspects who have passed through its formidable portals and confessed all, Mrs Tomaselli, who is under investigation on 12 counts of complicity with Mr Craxi for a total of 20bn lire (nearly pounds 10m), firmly denied everything, her lawyers said.

The magistrates wanted to know about the suitcases full of cash which Mr Craxi's former close friend and associate Silvano Larini brought into her office. She said Larini would deliver large envelopes, about whose contents she 'naturally' knew nothing. They were destined for the party treasurer in a nearby office, she said.

The long-haired, flamboyant former foreign minister, Gianni de Michelis, who is already being prosecuted for taking kickbacks on public contracts, has received two more notifications of investigations. One alleged that he had a former girlfriend presented with an apartment in the centre of Rome worth L1bn by a big real estate developer, apparently in return for political favours.

As investigations roll on, the magnitude of the corruption that went on for years is beginning to emerge. Magistrates have learned that in the ten years between 1970 and 1980 the giant state-owned concern ENI paid the four ruling parties kickbacks worth a total of L1.5 trillion. It appears increasingly likely that other big firms did much the same. Serious calculations are being made that the parties extorted no less than pounds 5bn between them a year.

And while politicians claim they did it for their parties, it appears increasingly likely that much of it stayed in the pockets of big political leaders. In the daily La Repubblica, Giuseppe Turani calculated that only one third went to the parties, one third to the lower-level people who extracted the money and the rest to relatively few political 'superbosses'. 'In Europe there are few families with a long industrial and financial background who have a fortune as large as those of some Italian politicians,' he wrote.

The money appropriated by the parties, he calculated, was worth about 10 per cent of the country's state deficit. This is being financed with treasury bonds, so it is costing the state huge sums in interest on these bonds - money which has to be paid in turn by the taxpayer.

Corruption is also bringing other costs: more than 100,000 jobs are hanging by a thread because public officials are too scared to sign new contracts.

(Photograph omitted)