Right wing in Italy sets its sights on Scalfaro

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The Independent Online
SILVIO BERLUSCONI'S right-wing cabinet ministers had hardly sat down at their desks when their supporters started gunning for President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who had expressed open misgivings about the new government.

The sharpest attacks came from the extreme right-wing National Alliance (AN), sore that members with more markedly neo-Fascist pasts had been excluded from the cabinet. But Mr Berlusconi's most loyal newspaper, Il Giornale, which technically belongs to his brother, Paolo, but was the main print organ of his campaign, declared: 'Scalfaro should abdicate. Immediately.'

The attacks focused mainly on allegations made last year by disgraced former top officials of Sisde, the civilian secret service, that when he was interior minister President Scalfaro had taken secret payments of 100m lire (pounds 40,000) a month out of Sisde's secret operations fund. The President, in a dramatic move, went live on television to denounce the allegations as a murky plot to topple him and obstruct the arrival of a new political order in Italy.

Mr Scalfaro, a Christian Democrat and devout Catholic who was regarded as morally more upright than many of his colleagues, has played a vital role in steering the country through the transition from the ruins of the First Republic to the Second. Although he has not been put under investigation, let alone charged, the secret service affair has cast a shadow over his term in office. The immediate press and public support that followed the allegations has since turned to scepticism, but there appeared to be a tacit agreement to leave him in peace until the transition period was over, after which it was predicted that he would eventually go.

His departure may have been hastened by his unparalleled step, immediately before the announcement of the new cabinet, of publishing an exchange of letters between himself and Mr Berlusconi in which he insisted that the new team respected certain principles of the constitution, including liberty, legality and the unity of Italy. The move, demonstrating a patent lack of confidence, was described by Giancarlo Pagliarini, the new Budget Minister, as 'uselessly offensive'.

And while the President publicly declared he had not vetoed any ministers, it is widely believed he put pressure on Mr Berlusconi in several cases, inducing him, among other things, not to put his own lawyer and close friend, Cesare Previti, into the justice ministry while top executives of Mr Berlusconi's empire are under judicial investigation.

He is also thought to have persuaded him to drop Mirko Tremaglia, an AN member with a notoriously fascist past who recently raised the potentially explosive issue of Italy's abandoned claims on territory in former Yugoslavia, as minister for Italians living abroad.

If anyone doubted the tension between the President and the new government they needed only to watch the swearing-in ceremony on television on Wednesday where the President was aloof and unsmiling, in sharp contrast to Mr Berlusconi, who beamed irrepressibly even in the most solemn moments.

Mr Scalfaro 'won't last long and I will help him to go', promised Mr Tremaglia. 'It is Scalfaro who is in trouble with the law, not this government,' said another neo-Fascist, Maurizio Gasparri.