Italy's parties starve in era of honest cash

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The Independent Online
THE ROME Christian Democrats have been evicted from their party headquarters because they could not pay the bills. And now, says Romano Forleo, their new secretary, 'there is not even the money to pay for postage stamps'.

The Social Democrats, also broke, had all their telephones cut off. Later the post office relented but, fearing more unpaid bills, allowed them only card phones.

Some employees of the former Communist party have not been paid for nine months and the party is selling off its 'family jewels' including paintings by Luigi Veronesi and Gio Pomodoro.

With their rich flow of income from rake-offs suddenly cut off as a result of corruption investigations, Italy's main politicial parties are in desperate financial straits. No more suitcases of banknotes arriving in party offices, no more murky off-shore bank transactions. And the huge, cumbersome party machines they fuelled are falling to pieces, lavish campaign funds have dried up; a golden age is over.

Readers of the weekly Panorama voted Antonio di Pietro, the Milan deputy public prosecutor leading the investigations, as Man of the Year and l'Espresso puts him on the cover this week with a large 'Thank You' for starting it all, but spoilt, cocooned politicians and party officials are shivering in the cold world of enforced honesty.

Many have had their cars and drivers taken away and are learning to battle with public transport, pollution and traffic chaos just like everyone else. Smart restaurants and boutiques, particularly in Milan, are badly hit not just by the economic crisis, but by the sudden absence of free-spending party leaders, their lucrative contacts and their wives. Two leading restaurants in Milan are said to be thinking of closing down.

The rent for the Socialist Party headquarters, where crowds shouted 'thieves, thieves' to members of the national executive last week, has not been paid for months. The party's administrators, struggling with a deficit of around pounds 12m, have cut the number of telephone lines from 137 to 36, and all but the staff of the General Secretary, Bettino Craxi, have to buy their own newspapers. Several regional and local branches have had to be abandoned.

In Bari, members had to have a whip-round in order to entertain a party bigwig from Rome. In Naples, party workers occupied the local headquarters for days to demand long-overdue pay.

The Christian Democrats are trying to sell their huge national party headquarters in a Rome suburb and 380 premises. They have cut staff and slashed publishing operations and study centres. The small Republican Party not only demanded that members pay their own hotel bills at its recent congress, but anyone who wanted to speak had to fork out 100,000 lire ( pounds 48) to take the podium.

The PDS - the former Communist party - faces the same problems, even though it was never in government. It ran or participated in regional and local administrations and its deficit is the biggest: almost pounds 20m.

Its 2,300 staff has been reduced to 900, it has cut publishing operations and radio stations, and forbidden officials to travel by plane. With the bailiffs expected at their Turin offices any day now to seize computers and desks, they are selling off the paintings given by past sympathisers and property estimated to be worth about L600m, bought over the years from members' contributions.

Ironically, one of the parties least hit by the clean-up is the neo- fascist Social Movement - although it still has debts. Regarded as the pariah of Italian politics and excluded from most administrations since the war, it never had the same opportunities for graft.

Theft was by far the biggest source of income for the parties. One entrepreneur charged in the Milan corruption scandal estimated that the parties spent around pounds 700m a year.

Other funds came from members' dues and from contributions from benefactors, including industries. But members, disgusted and disillusioned, are falling away fast and many firms no longer want to be associated with the discredited parties. Even state funds, linked to election results, are shrinking along with their share of the vote.

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