Italy still on red alert after week of alarms

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EVER SINCE Brutus and Co ganged up to kill Julius Caesar, Italy has been the home of conspiracies, intrigues, plots and rumours of plots.

Last week its head of state faced down an apparent plot to topple him and sabotage Italy's political revolution. But, with the country passing through the most confused and uncertain phase of its history since the war, the danger is far from over.

On the face of it, the plotters are a group of six former top officials in Italy's civilian secret service, the SISDE, itself under investigation after huge sums of money from its slush funds were found in bank accounts and invested in property and businesses owned by its members and their families. Three of its officials are in jail, and the others are on the run.

Unable to persuade the magistrates that this was 'cover' for the funds, SISDE is alleging that President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and other politicians took illegal 'salaries' from the funds.

Riccardo Malpica, SISDE's former director-general, claims that he handed over pounds 42,000 a month to Mr Scalfaro. The president, however, is regarded as one of the rare Christian Democrats who remained above the sleaze that has nearly destroyed his party.

The allegations are thus all the more shocking. It is believed that his accusers hoped he would step down until the charges were cleared up. The president is the key figure in the revolution because of his office and his commitment to seeing through the transition from the First to the Second Republic, as the nation wants.

Twenty-six million television viewers lived through an alarming 15 minutes on Wednesday evening when programmes were interrupted with the announcement that the president was about to address the nation live. Before he appeared, anchormen ad-libbed helplessly. Many people feared the worst. Could there have been a coup?

His message was firm and reassuring: 'We must remain steady and calm.' The allegations, like the recent series of car-bombs, were part of an attempt at the slow destruction of the state. He would stay. Italians breathed a sign of relief. Two days later, Mr Malpica and two others were charged with an 'attack on the Constitution'.

That was not the only alarm of the week. On Friday, Italian state bonds and stocks plunged after a rumour that President Scalfaro was indeed about to resign. Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi reacted instantly with a fierce denial, saying the reports were put about with 'criminal intent'.

As a sign of just how strong are the suspicions of a plot, he asked the magistrates to prosecute those responsible. All police leave has been cancelled and they have been placed on top alert.

Italians have a national habit called 'dietrologia', which consist of seeing conspiracies, manipulations or ulterior motives behind (dietro) particular events. As it happens, Italy being Italy, they have often been proved right.

And most people believe that this week's alarms and excursions were not merely the work of six people from a sleazy secret service. Someone else has to be behind it. But who?

There many people who do not want Italy to change. Above all, they do not want elections, which would sweep the old ruling class out of parliament.

One in five members of parliament is already under investigation, mostly for corruption. They and many others fear that the moment they go back to ordinary life they could be arrested. After years of power, privileges, riches and status, they could find themselves in a dank and crowded cell in one of Italy's drerdful prisons along with addicts and common criminals.

The resignation or even impeachment of the president would put the ball firmly in parliament's court: it could elect a president less anxious to see early elections. This in turn might precipitate the beginning of a break-up of Italy into a federal state. The Northern League has threatened that if elections are not held in the spring, it will withdraw its members from Rome and set up a parliament of the North.

'The sooner elections are held the better,' said Interior Minister Nicola Mancino, who is responsible for public order. But a couple of months are a very long time in politics, especially when there are desperate people with nothing to lose. Italy is not out of the woods yet.

(Photograph omitted)