Italian Socialists fight for party's soul: Reformist leader resigns in anger from beleaguered movement as old guard thwarts change

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The Independent Online
A LIFE-OR-DEATH struggle broke out yesterday between reformers and the old guard, for the future of Italy's century-old Socialist Party, brought to its knees by corruption scandals, defections and colossal debts.

The battle was precipitated by the dramatic resignation of Giorgio Benvenuto, the former trade union leader who was brought in only three months ago to replace Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former prime minister, and clean up the party's image. In an angry and outspoken denunciation of the old guard's attempt to sabotage his efforts, Mr Benvenuto said he was resigning in order to force a show-down. He was quickly followed by the party's president, Gino Giugni, and half the secretariat.

A passionate believer in Socialist ideals, Mr Benvenuto appeared to be prepared to found a new, breakaway Socialist party if necessary. 'As secretary I declare myself beaten,' he told the party secretariat. 'But as a militant I . . . feel free to persevere in my determination that the ideas and ideals of the great Socialist tradition should still have a place in Italy . . . I don't know if this party can be saved but I am certain, and many comrades are too, that socialism has a future in this country.'

Mr Benvenuto appealed in extremis to the 'living forces' in Italy's socialist tradition to 'let their voices be heard . . . in this moment when the very survival of the socialist heritage is at stake'.

Mr Benvenuto gave up after his recent get-tough tactics to assert himself against the discredited old leadership failed. Only one of the party's 44 MP's under investigation obeyed instructions to resign voluntarily or be removed. While pretending to accept his strategy they 'tried to thwart it day after day', he said.

The scandals had brought the party's share of the vote down from around 15 per cent to an estimated 5 per cent, members were melting away and groups - one led by the previous prime minister, Giuliano Amato - appear to be pondering defection or secession. Meanwhile, party administrators have totted up debts to around pounds 120m - which Mr Benvenuto says were irresponsibly run up by his predecessors - and the 240 staff at the Rome headquarters, including Mr Benvenuto, have not been paid for three months.

He attacked 'part of the leadership who think they can dispose of the party as if it were their own' and said their 'deaf resistance' was blocking every attempt at renewal. These people seemed to have the majority in the party leadership and parliamentary groups, he said, but they 'are certainly beatable in the country'.

The remaining members of the secretariat announced they would call a meeting of the executive on Monday and the party was expected to be run by a committee until a 're-founding convention', due to be held at the end of June.

While Mr Craxi, whom a handful of faithful still want back at the helm, waited in the wings, his followers attacked Mr Benvenuto and declared there would be no split. Mr Benvenuto had 'dramatised' the situation and was mistaken in thinking he could break with the past, said Ugo Intini, Mr Craxi's former spokesman.

When Achille Occhetto, leader of the ex-Communist Democratic Party of the Left, heard of Mr Benvenuto's resignation, he proposed work begin on forming a 'confederation of the left'. As he sees it, this would be a kind of alliance between Socialists, former Communists, their various splinter groups and possibly others in preparation for the future majority electoral system, which is expected to favour bigger groupings.