Magistrates move to prosecute Craxi

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A FORMAL request to prosecute Bettino Craxi, the Socialist leader and former prime minister, was on its way from Milan to Rome yesterday where it may finally end his dazzling career and, indirectly, bring down the government.

In the 118-page document, the Milan magistrates investigating Italy's biggest corruption scandal are asking the Chamber of Deputies to lift Mr Craxi's parliamentary immunity so they can prosecute him for corruption, receiving stolen goods and violating the law on party funding. The date for the decision has not yet been fixed.

So notorious has the case become that the 630 deputies, whose decisions in such cases are unpredictable, can hardly refuse where Mr Craxi is concerned without losing every remaining shred of credibility with the public. The Christian Democrats, who have plenty of skeletons in their own cupboards, have left their members free to vote as they wish.

Mino Martinazzoli, the Christian Democrat leader, has publicly urged Mr Craxi - as many fellow Socialists have been doing in private - to ask himself for his immunity to be waived. But it is uncertain whether the combative Mr Craxi, who insists it is all a personal and political conspiracy against him, will take his advice.

The Craxi affair, and its devastating impact on the Socialist party, has begun to threaten the fragile government of the Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, a Socialist himself. Mr Martinazzoli, whose party is the biggest of the four in the coalition, psychologically set it teetering by warning on Monday that 'it could fall under the blows of the Socialist Party'.

What he apparently meant was that Mr Craxi, who appears prepared to bring his own party down with him, may just as easily wreck the government. He is desperately clinging to his position as leader, causing deep divisions in the party and paralysing any attempt to rehabilitate itself after the welter of scandals. And a vote against him in parliament could also damage Mr Amato, who was put in his job by Mr Craxi, his long-time political benefactor.

The Socialist national assembly is supposed to meet by the end of January, although the party has not yet succeeded in setting a date, and its leaders hope that Mr Craxi will then finally resign. If he does not, numerous opponents might break away.

Meanwhile, a further, but probably less serious, threat was coming from the former Communist leader, Achille Occhetto, who has started talks with leaders of both coalition and opposition parties, including the Northern League and the anti-Mafia La Rete, on forming a wide-spectrum government to push through constitutional and electoral reforms, and then call general elections.

Mr Occhetto's plan is to avoid a long and risky interregnum by first having a new government ready, then calling a German-style 'constructive vote of no-confidence' to bring down the old one. It is not yet clear whether his efforts have a chance of succeeding.