Italy's Justice Minister, Filippo Mancuso, whose attacks on anti-corruption magistrates have alienated public opinion, brought the temperature of political debate to boiling point yesterday when he refused to resign, despite losing a confidence vote in the Senate.
The 74-year-old career jurist caused turmoil in the upper house by inveighing against President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and the Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, accusing them of conspiring to protect the magistrates at all costs.
His speech split the political spectrum in two, with the conservative coalition of the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, cheering him on and the centre-left outraged about what they saw as smears.
The vote against Mr Mancuso was carried by 173 votes to three, but left the country in an impasse, as the constitution makes it virtually impossible to remove ministers. Either the government must now resign or President Scalfaro will have to remove Mr Mancuso from office. Either course could precipitate early elections.
After the vote, Mr Berlusconi said he would try to topple the government by presenting a no-confidence motion.
The Mancuso affair has forced Italians to decide whether the anti-corruption drive that toppled the old political order in Italy was an attempt to clean up public life, or a kind of coup to serve specific political interests.
The debate has been sharpened by Mr Berlusconi's own experience. Accused of bribing tax inspectors investigating his Fininvest business empire, he has been ordered to stand trial next January - a trial he describes as a witch-hunt to prevent him from returning to the prime minister's office.
Mr Mancuso has his own reasons for despising the judiciary. He believes the "Clean Hands" anti-corruption team in Milan has extracted confessions under duress and has leaked key documents to the press, abusing confidentiality.
Yesterday he contended that President Scalfaro had pressured him into halting inspections into the work of the Milan magistrates. Mr Mancuso also accused Mr Dini of bad faith by first going along with his policies and then withdrawing support. Mr Dini did not attend the confidence debate, but said he would not respond to such "provocations".
He accused Mr Mancuso of failing to respect the collegiality of the government. Mr Mancuso's main failing is his approach. Instead of trying to reform the system, he has tried to punish individual magistrates - unsuccessfully, as his inspection teams keep absolving them of wrong- doing. And, instead of working with the government, he has denounced Mr Dini as "servile". Now he has been discredited but he still refuses to resign. He has become a one-man embarrassment to Italian democracy, eloquent proof that the system still needs reform.Reuse content