Faint breath of scandal panics the left

These are confusing times for the Italian left. Normally they would be denouncing their opponents for the kinds of things right-wing politicians do - running into legal trouble over party financing scandals, arranging comfortable housing deals for their families, or offending minorities with a tribute to a crypto-Fascist from the recent past.

Now the tables have been turned, and the left is being accused of these crimes while the right rubs its hands. In the lazy post-holiday atmosphere of a Roman September, the main left-wing party, the PDS, and its allies are managing to slip up on every banana skin going.

Thus it is that Massimo D'Alema, the PDS's professorial leader, is under judicial investigation for arranging back-handers for the party via a network of co-operatives in northern Italy. Thus it is that Mr D'Alema and the editor of the PDS newspaper, Walter Veltroni, are involved in a "Golden Rents" scandal, under which they were offered privileged rates for properties belonging to state investment funds and insurance companies. And Francesco Rutelli, the left-wing Mayor of Rome, is under fire for naming a square after Giuseppe Bottai, Mussolini's education minister at the time of the notorious 1938 race laws which hounded Jewish children out of state schools.

To believe the excited headlines of Il Giornale, the right-wing Milan newspaper controlled by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the whole Italian left could be about to crumble, and with it all prospects of winning power at the next elections. The headlines have worried the left, which has treated the allegations very seriously. But on closer inspection these scandals are as intangible as the autumn mists rolling across the Po valley.

It turns out that the party financing affair dates back to 1991, was small in scale and involved no personal enrichment. A magistrate's report mentions Mr D'Alema only once, in relation to a meeting he did not even attend.

As for the "Golden Rents", most of the "low" rents are little lower than the market value of the properties. Politicians needing a pied-a- terre in the capital are not the only ones to benefit - half Rome wangles a discount on rent in the same way. The real scandal is that so much property in prime locations belongs to state financial institutions. But as the left has not held power in Italy since the end of the Second World War, that is not the left's fault.

Mr D'Alema has taken no chances with the bad publicity, announcing that he will move out of his large but dingy flat at Trastevere, a little way from the Vatican. Mr Veltroni says he will ask his landlord to increase the rent to market levels. One wonders if such declarations of high principle will do any good. In Rome, anyone who volunteers to pay more than he or she has to is considered a fool.

Perhaps the stormiest debate has been over Mr Rutelli's proposed Largo Bottai, but even here one cannot help feeling let down by the paltry outrageousness of it all. Yes, Bottai was a minister under Mussolini, but he also protected enemies of the regime and paid for several prominent artists and intellectuals to go into exile. During the war he joined the resistance and was sentenced to death in absentia by the Fascist Salo Republic.

It's not as though anyone will have to live on his square. It is merely a stub of asphalt in the middle of the Villa Borghese park. And if you object to Bottai as an anti-Semite, what about all those anti-Semitic Popes who adorn Roman street signs? Or Emperor Titus, who has a huge triumphal arch to his name although he razed the Temple in Jerusalem?

For a while it seemed Mayor Rutelli would stick to his guns, but this week he backed down, saying the time was not right, though he hoped to honour Bottai in the future.

Thus, for the third time in as many weeks, the Italian left caved in to pressure from the right-wing press and humiliated itself over issues that should never have grown as big as they have.

As the commentator Michele Serra wrote recently, the left has a reputation of being intellectual, artistic, creative, friendly, socially responsible and sincere. But why does it have to ruin everything, by getting involved in politics?