Italy old guard has time on its hands: MPs face the painful transition from power and privilege to disgraced nonentity, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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'AN era is ending,' declared Gianni Agnelli, president of Fiat. 'Farewell, First Republic,' ran a headline in La Repubblica newspaper. 'We can turn the page,' said La Stampa.

As President Ocar Luigi Scalfaro prepared to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, Italians were intensely aware that an important chapter in their history, and latterly an unsavoury, even shameful one, was about to close.

The Second Republic that the elections will usher in is all very strange, unfamiliar and somewhat unnerving. For the first time since the war, what used to be the Communist Party can come to power without causing an East-West crisis, a possible right-wing coup or Cossacks watering their horses in the fountains of St Peter's Square.

For the first time, too, politicians have to compete for their voters' favour directly in the cold, cruel, new first-past-the- post system. No longer can many hope to be swept in on the apron-strings of their party, the Mamma who would provide them with seats, titles and cushy, well-paid posts in return for total loyalty, votes often bought by favours or cash extorted from firms in return for contracts. Many of the old guard do not intend to run.

While voters are happy to see the back of them, for the MPs the transition from power and privileges to being disgraced nobodies could be traumatic. A sociologist, Sabino Acquaviva, has warned they risk depression, premature ageing, personality changes, divorce, even a tendency to suicide. He urged them to 'book an appointment with a psychiatrist as soon as possible'.

Publicly, few MPs will admit it is as bad as that. But many clearly have ample time on their hands. Gerardo Bianco, outgoing Christian Democrat floor leader and a Latin expert, is planning a book on animals in the works of Virgil. Riccardo Misasi, a veteran whose activities have aroused the interest of magistrates, says: 'I will go back to painting. And write down some music I have been composing in my head for some time.'

Gianni de Michelis, the former foreign minister, has lost weight and has gone into 'international business', according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper. The former justice minister, Claudio Martelli, has been attending an economics course in London. Gianni Prandini, former public works minister and another leading figure in the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandals, is learning Spanish and may work for his wife, an insurance broker. 'It is certainly not easy to get work with the image I've got now,' he admits.

The MPs will get some severance pay and eventually a pension. They can also use parliamentary facilities - including the notepaper, the barber and the bar - for life. But many will have to find work somehow, and are dusting off old qualifications they never used. A handful of older politicians, including the former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, under investigation for alleged murder and Mafia connections, will stay in parliament because they are Life Senators.

A small group of diehards, calling themselves 'Young Italy', still hope - against all the odds - for the political resurrection of Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former Socialist prime minister. There are reportedly plans for him to run again, in deepest Calabria.

But the truth is that for one- third of the 630 outgoing deputies and 315 senators much time will be spent with their lawyers, in court and possibly even in jail, fighting the charges of corruption and other accusations in court cases that will drag on for many years.

The sense of non-existence that is already enveloping the old guard has doubtless been reinforced by the decision of Who's Who in Italy to sweep the names of all the politicians as well as the businessmen, financiers, bureaucrats and hangers- on involved in various scandals from the pages of its new edition. Altogether, 2,500 names have gone and only 1,800 new ones put in, including - notably - hitherto unknown magistrates.