Italians face the end of the good life as corruption lays low the body politic

ONE OF the most successful and respected managers in Italian industry is sleeping with two other people on mattresses on the floor of a small cell in Milan's San Vittore prison, where 2,200 inmates are crammed into a space built for 750. The stinking toilet has no door, there is no ventilation and they cannot open the window lest the rats jump in.

Antonio Mosconi, head of Fiat's insurance company, Toro, is in custody as magistrates investigate suspicions that he passed bribes to politicians - unfounded allegations, his lawyer says.

Sergio Castellari, the powerful former permanent under-secretary in the ministry responsible for state-owned companies - about 40 per cent of Italy's industry - has been found dead in the fields near his villa outside Rome, with a pistol and half-drunk bottle of whisky.

Huge cheques from a building contractor were found in his home: he could not face the shame and horror of his impending arrest. He was the seventh corruption suspect to take his life in the latest wave of scandals.

Giorgio La Malfa, a leading opposition politician (and the son of a great politician) had been championing morality, reforms and a clean-up of political and public life. Last week he came under investigation for taking illicit campaign funds and resigned.

Many others who have connived with the Mafia, have covered up conspiracies, have stolen vast quantities of money or have used their power for personal ends, are untouched - as yet.

The Italian revolution may be peaceful, but it is ugly, frightening, sometimes tragic, sometimes unfair, and deeply destabilising. It is also exhilarating - bringing hopes of a purification of public life, self-respect and good government - as long as the country can survive the turmoil.

It is only a year, though it seems much longer, since the owner of a cleaning service walked into a venerable old-age home in Milan, the Pio Albergo Trivulzio, with a hidden microphone and 7 million lire in banknotes, which he handed to the person in charge, a middle-level Socialist politician called Mario Chiesa.

It was the first half of a L14m rake-off for Chiesa and the Socialists for the contract to clean the hospital. Chiesa, evidently smelling a rat, tried unsuccessfully to flush it down the toilet, and was arrested the same day.

At first, it was assumed to be an isolated incident. Bettino Craxi, the leader of the Socialist party and former prime minister, remarked dismissively that there was a black sheep in every society. Little did he imagine that a year later he and scores of other politicians would be accused of creaming off sums much vaster than Chiesa's; or that, despite his desperate struggles to cling to his post, his loud protests of conspiracy, his career as the most powerful and dynamic leader in recent decades would be over; or that Italy's post-war political system would be collapsing around him.

He had reckoned without Antonio di Pietro, a little-known member of the Milan public prosecutor's staff with a talent for computers. Mr di Pietro had already had his eye on Chiesa, but it was Chiesa's abandoned wife who gave him the trump cards. Laura Sala Chiesa demanded alimony out of all proportion to the modest income her husband earned as a Socialist official looking after old people.

She knew about the millions of dollars stashed away in Switzerland, the real estate, the big spending, and she wanted her share. Instead she landed her husband in jail. What Mr di Pietro learned opened a can of worms.

Besides his computers, he had another formidable weapon: public opinion. Even before the Chiesa case, and increasingly after the scandals it produced, the public was turning on the rotten, ineffective, self-serving parties and politicians that had ruled Italy unchallenged since the war. People had been aware to some extent of corruption and misrule all along; indeed, had happily gone along with it; in fact, it was very much part of the Italian way of doing things. But ultimately it damaged the once-resilient economy and Italy's ability to function in the modern world. And one other crucial event had changed everything.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was almost as historic for Italy as it was for the countries of Eastern Europe. For as long as the Soviet threat lasted, the only big opposition party was the Communists; and as long as Italians wanted to be rich and part of the West, they had no choice but to keep electing the same old faces in the same old parties, whose pretence at any ideals had long since vanished.

Then suddenly the Communists were no longer a threat. There was a choice. And in general elections less than two months after Chiesa's arrest, the established parties found their votes melting away like snow in the sun - as they have continued to do since.

Now their entrenched support and habits were threatened, not by the Communists, but by unnerving newcomers, such as the federalist Northern League, followed by the southern grouping La Rete and later by the Democratic Alliance.

The fate of prosecutors who stumbled on political misdeeds in the past did not befall Mr di Pietro. He did not drop the case, nor did his superiors make him drop it, nor did any powerful politician make him drop it. Nor did it get transferred to Rome, where more docile prosecutors would have quietly buried it, on the principle that you don't rock the boat.

Soon hundreds of Milanese politicians, public officials and entrepreneurs were under investigation for bribery or extortion, including Bettino Craxi's brother, a former mayor of the city, his son Bobo and roomsful of his friends. People have stopped counting the big names passing through San Vittore jail. One wit remarked that it was now competing with the foyer of La Scala opera house as a place to see anyone who is, or was, anyone.

The pre-dawn knock on the door of one's lush apartment or villa, the carabinieri, the handcuffs and the horrors of San Vittore have been criticised as being out of proportion. But they are working wonders. Few stay silent: in order to get out, or not to go in, people are singing like birds. An exhausted Mr di Pietro complained recently he had had 15 people in his office in one day, all wanting to confess. He and his colleagues could not cope.

The investigations quickly spread to the Christian Democrats and other ruling parties, and to the former Communists, who had also managed to get a share of the cake. They spread from Milan to Rome and other big cities, while prosecutors all over Italy, encouraged by Mr di Pietro's success, initiated investigations of their own. They snapped up big building contractors, state-owned companies, public service companies providing roads, underground railways, electricity, and have now reached into the heart of Italian private capital, with two top Fiat men under arrest. Four cabinet ministers have left under a cloud, as the scandals have repeatedly rocked the government and sent the lira diving.

The basic principle was simple. Politicians received bribes, called tangenti, in return for favours, particularly fat contracts to build roads, hospitals, airports and so on. This explains why the country is littered with expensive white elephants, projects of little use except to line greedy pockets.

Who the corrupted and who the corruptors were is open to debate, although suspicion falls heavily on the politicians. Supposedly they were financing their huge party machines (about a million of Italy's 57 million people work in politics). But the daily La Repubblica has reckoned that only a third of the money went to the parties, another third to the various go-betweens and the rest to the politicians, particularly the big bosses.

What did not end up in Swiss bank accounts (evidently a great deal) sloshed back into the Italian economy. Certain smart restaurants, nightclubs and boutiques patronised by politicians and their wives or girlfriends are now having trouble staying open. How much is due to the scandals and how much to the economic crisis, caused largely by the huge public debt, is hard to say.

At the same time, about 100,000 jobs are at risk, with politicians or public officials terrified to sign or negotiate contracts for public works. The whole system of raccomandazioni, by which people would seek politicians' help in getting jobs, building licences, council houses or whatever, is said to have dried up. Francesco de Lorenzo, the former health minister, was livid and refused to resign when a parliamentary committee voted to allow his prosecution for selling favours for votes. After all, didn't everyone do it?

So vast has the scandal become that the government is preparing - at the request of the overworked prosecutors - a Bill which would pardon those who confess everything, give back all or most of the money and leave public life for good. A less reputable Bill being prepared by MPs would retroactively let culprits off the hook, something the public would not appreciate.

While Italians are mesmerised by the scandals, the Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, is trying to tackle the economic crisis and tide the country over until parliament can produce electoral and constitutional reforms that will enable a healthy alternation of government by, with luck, fewer parties. It is ironic that while many in Britain think salvation lies in proportional representation, Italians - and a referendum on 18 April is expected to confirm this - can't wait to ditch theirs for a majority party system.

What this will produce is not clear. The likely heirs to the present parties, if current trends continue, are not so much parties as system-breaking movements like Solidarity and the civic forums of Eastern Europe, which, after their aims are achieved, may develop into parties or break up and merge with others. Few have yet started thinking that far ahead.

Meanwhile Mr Amato, with a shaky majority of only 16 and no viable alternative to take his place, is trying to navigate the turbulent passage between the old and the new, between Italy's First and its Second Republic, as fresh storms break over it almost daily. There is no guarantee that the ship may not yet be wrecked.

With luck, however, Italy should end up with a cleaner, more moral public life, at least for a time, as it did after the fall of Fascism. Whether it will become more like a modern, Northern European country is quite another thing. Mr Amato points out that Italy, being a young and Catholic country, lacks the Protestant sense of personal responsibility in the community, or the respect for the state that exists in other Catholic countries such as France.

But much of northern Italy holds such Northern European values; even in the south there is a strong desire for change.

Such reformers as Mario Segni, organiser of referendums and leader of the Democratic Alliance, warn that changing the system is not enough. It is up to Italians themselves to change their age-old ways if it is going to work.

'People don't understand that so-called civil society is also responsible for the scandals,' Piero Ostellino complained in the Corriere della Sera last week. This idea has still yet to get through.

The shopkeepers, the taxi-drivers, the office workers and others who shouted 'Thieves, thieves' at Bettino Craxi and his colleagues, are also people who dodge taxes, pull strings or wangle pensions towhich they have no right. The revolution that began in San Vittore still has to be completed in the hearts and minds of the people.

(Photograph omitted)

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