Italy Goes to the Polls / Italian Election '94: How the end came for the old political system

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February 1992: A mammoth corruption scandal starts to unfold in Milan when a small-time Socialist Party official is caught taking a pounds 3,200 bribe on a cleaning contract for an old people's home. The case reveals a nationwide network of bribery and produces a mine of testimony leading thousands of arrests in what become known as tangentopoli (kickback city). Milan's magistrates launch Operation Clean Hands, revealing a pattern of corruption so vast and deep it affects virtually every sector of society.

May 1992: The scandal reaches Rome when the magistrates move against associates and relatives of Bettino Craxi, the Socialist Party leader and former prime minister. It emerges that the Socialists, denied power for so long, were the most unashamedly corrupt party of all, greedily plundering the nation.

June 1992: Evidence emerges that the Christian Democrats, the dominant party in 51 governments since 1946, have consorted with the Sicilian Mafia, the Cosa Nostra. Calling themselves a bulwark against Communism, they justify their secret collusion for reasons of state security. Meanwhile Rome's magistrates serve notice on the minister for public works and Craxi withdraws from the race for prime minister. Within months, Craxi is informed he is under investigation. In Milan and Venice, magistrates target the flamboyant former foreign minister Gianni de Michelis.

July 1992: Numerous industrialists are charged with corruption. Ferruzzi Finnanziaria's chairman allegedly paid pounds 72m to political parties in 1990 while the biggest bribe of pounds 35m was paid to the former head of Banco Commerciale Italiana as thanks for credits he extended to Ferruzzi. Magistrates talk of having to try more than 60,000 people, including 50 members of parliament if they are to root out the corruption they have uncovered.

January 1993: The investigations now take in Eni, the state oil consortium, Ferruzzi's Montedison and the national road authority, Anas. Top Fiat executives are locked up and more than 100 politicians, civil servants and businessmen talk to magistrates about a web of corruption.

March 1993: Efforts are made to remove the investigation from the hands of the magistrates and hand it to regionally appointed placemen. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro refuses.

April 1993: Giulio Andreotti, the 74-year-old veteran of Italian politics, seven times prime minister and a Christian Democrat, is finally notified by Palermo magistrates that he is being investigated for associating with the Mafia. He is accused of holding a meeting with Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, the alleged 'boss of bosses' who, as head of the Corleonese Mafia clan, had been on the run for 24 years as Europe's most dangerous and wanted criminal. Andreotti is also fingered by Tomas Buscetta, a Mafia boss who has been co-operating with Italian and US authorities.

November 1993: Italy's secret services, the Sisde, are accused of embezzlement and corruption. Top officials are arrested on suspicion of stealing pounds 20m from secret funds.

March 1994: Accusations are hurled at Silvio Berlusconi, whose political movement, Forza Italia, has swept the country. He denies that his campaign is being helped by organised crime comes as gunmen kill an outspoken anti-Mafia priest near Naples.

So far the Clean Hands campaign has led to the arrest of more than 1,500 businessmen, civil servants and local politicians. Another 3,000 Italians are under investigation, including 250 members of parliament and four former heads of government. There have been 10 suicides by suspects to date.

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