Struggle for the soul of Italy: Local polls this weekend offer a choice between the corrupt old order and a powerful movement for change, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEKEND'S municipal elections are the latest round in a battle being waged throughout Italy for the future of the country. It is a struggle on many fronts between entrenched powers and champions of change, northern European values and age-old Mediterranean ways, decent society and corruption. It is almost as gripping as the struggle three years ago to bring down Communism in the East and the outcome is as uncertain.

The scene is dramatic: politicians marched from their homes in handcuffs; courageous judges blown to pieces; crowds shouting for honesty and reform; suicides; Mafia criminals flushed out of hiding places; new scandals; plots and intrigues to split the country. Inwardly there is anger, a sense of injustice and an overwhelming desire for change. There is confusion, disorientation and discomfort as new hopes conflict with old habits. For a crucial part of the battle is within the Italian soul.

Victory could mean a new Italy, run efficiently by honest, responsible politicians and parties answerable to their voters, the rule of law, public services that worked, a state that was respected. Defeat, or continuation of the present mess could bring chaos, economic disaster, or worse. Italy's choice, says Mario Segni, a leader of the forces for change, is between Europe and the Third World.

The parallel with the anti-Communist revolutions is no accident. The fall of the Berlin Wall was almost as momentous for Italy as it was for Eastern Europe. For it had propped up a regime - freely elected and unoppressive to be sure - which in nearly 50 years of unchallenged power had grown sclerotic, perverted and corrupt. As long as the Communists were Italy's second largest party, most Italians had - as one writer put it - to 'hold our noses and vote Christian Democrat'. Or Socialist, or for another party in the coalition which, for all the 'crises', scarcely ever changed.

Italy remained free and became rich. But its democracy, denied natural change, started to rot. The ideals of the ruling parties - Catholic ethics, Socialism, Social Democracy - gave way to the profits of power. The country was run by a 'partyocracy' in which each party distributed funds, jobs and patronage. Voters were wooed by favours: a job; a promotion; a licence to build; a blind eye to tax-dodging; privileges and sinecures for state employees.

By giving Italians high pensions and generous social benefits, perpetuating the overblown and costly bureaucracy, pouring unproductive funds to the south and failing to combat huge tax evasion, however, the parties ran up a colossal state deficit. Italy's economic crisis is a consequence, not the cause, of its political rot.

The parties learned to steal by taking kickbacks from public works contracts. Recent investigations have revealed how greedy, shameless and widespread was this method, not only of financing the party machines but of keeping individual politicians in fine villas and their wives in smart clothes. Most alarming is the evidence of complicity between politicians and the Mafia. It has allowed the Mafia to proliferate, grow rich on drugs- and arms-trading and hold sway in whole areas of the South. It had representatives at the highest level in Rome procuring favours and protection. It arranged acquittals or milder sentences in trials.

Discontent with the political class was rising well before the fall of the Berlin Wall and it was not that event, but shocks at home, that shook the foundations of Il Palazzo, the palace of power. They were the Mafia assassinations of judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the corruption charges against associates of the former prime minister Bettino Craxi - the first time magistrates dared to investigate those at the top - the success of the referendum for electoral reform and the humiliating setbacks for the established parties in elections.

The resignation and cynicism which had allowed things to go on so long had vanished. Italians had had enough. Sheets bearing protests hung out of windows, crowds at the judges' funerals and demonstrations complained, councils were toppled, citizens' committees formed. Antonio di Pietro, the Milan magistrate leading the corruption investigations, became a national hero. Public prosecutors became bold.

Removing Communism in Eastern Europe may prove simple, however, compared with dismantling Italy's 'palace'. Its elected politicians must change themselves if they want to survive. The 'dinosaurs', as one writer calls them, are clinging on, but this weekend's elections should deal them a crushing blow.

It is doubtful whether the old parties can recover. Two main alternatives have emerged. One is the refreshing and sometimes alarming Northern League whose populist leader, Umberto Bossi, has brilliantly captured northern frustration with the antiquated and inefficient state. Mr Bossi and his supporters talk loosely of secession, but the League's official aim is a federation, with Italy divided into two or three parts. The newer Democratic Alliance, led by the more prudent Mario Segni is intended as a popular, progressive movement committed to honesty and reform. A third force could develop among former communists and socialists, at present convulsed by internal crises. These could become the parties of the future. Thus Italy's disease, a virulent form of the 'anti-politics' malaise lurking in other Western countries, could produce a new political landscape. Class divisions are out, morality, efficiency and responsibility are in. Their day has not yet come and in the grim phase of transition, a coup d'etat is not unthinkable: President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro has warned that such times can lead to dictatorships.

Have the new leaders the stature and skill to lead the nation through a democratic revolution? Some doubt it. Can a people accustomed to putting itself and its families first develop the civic sense that a modern European society demands? Could Italians start paying taxes, obeying the law, stop pulling strings and dismantle the system they helped to create?

The corruption and other evils are poisons which have been brought to the surface by the new, cleansing, hopeful forces for change which, if strong enough, could make the country a much better place.

(Photograph omitted)

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