Italy's clean hand seeks refuge in dirty game

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The Independent Online
When Antonio Di Pietro resigned as Italy's star anti-corruption magistrate nearly three years ago, he told his friends he was fed up with the poisonous atmosphere of public life in Italy and would go to ground for a while, possibly abroad.

After an incredible number of intrigues and contortions that have transformed him from number-one hero into the man everybody seems out to get, Mr Di Pietro must be wondering if he shouldn't have followed his own advice. His latest move, announced earlier this week, is to run for parliament on behalf of the ruling centre-left coalition, known as the Ulivo.

It sounds straightforward enough: Mr Di Pietro served as minister of public works in the government last year and probably needs an elected post if he is to pursue his public role as one-man champion of the people.

Conveniently, a safe seat in the Senate is about to become free because the eminent left-wing Mafia specialist Pino Arlacchi is about to take up a senior post at the United Nations.

But Mr Di Pietro has again allowed himself to be his own worst enemy. For three years he has resisted throwing himself wholesale into politics and has jealously guarded his independence from political parties. Before this week he earned a reputation for failing to commit himself to anything. Now, though, he has the opposite problem, with several members of the Ulivo complaining that he is a man of the right not the left, and the centre-right opposition meanwhile accusing him of pure political opportunism.

There is another problem. Having shaken off several gobs of judicial mud thrown over the past two years - mostly concerning illicit favours he is alleged to have accepted during his time as a magistrate - Mr Di Pietro is under fire again over his personal ethics. This time there are extraordinary accusations that he was involved in a plot to stop the tangentopoli anti-corruption investigations and had agreed to take money to do so.

Magistrates in Brescia, notoriously hostile to their former colleague from Milan, are trying for the fourth time to mount a criminal case against Mr Di Pietro based on taped telephone calls and other evidence that they say proves he was corrupted by money and the temptation of a political career. They have been helped by Silvio Berlusconi, the man Mr Di Pietro's investigations helped unseat as prime minister in December 1994, who now, as opposition leader, appears bent on destroying him.

Mr Di Pietro insists it is only a matter of time before he is again cleared of all wrong-doing; Mr Berlusconi suspects his entry into politics is a way of earning parliamentary immunity before the first indictment hits.

After months of soap opera-style coverage of the Di Pietro saga in the newspapers, the affair has taken on an air of shadow-boxing. Does Mr Di Pietro really count in Italian politics, or is he just a product of everyone's fevered imagination? Why, when he is given serious jobs to do, such as running the public works ministry, does he keep resigning? Is it really conceivable, as the papers keep writing, that he will end up as President of the Republic?

The prevailing wisdom on Mr Di Pietro, at least among those without an axe to grind against him, is that he was a talented policeman and magistrate, but has no head for politics. He undoubtedly represents a tremendous force in public opinion, the force which believes he embodies the yearning for a less sleazy, more responsible form of government in Italy.

Curiously, Mr Di Pietro's descent into murky games of political intrigue has coincided with a waning of the prospects of a new, cleaner Italy and a backsliding to the corrupt ways of the past. His enemies want to paint him as part of the problem, not part of the solution, while his political sparring partners see him as an outdated, irrelevant figure. Perhaps the main point lies elsewhere: that Mr Di Pietro once fought to change the venal system in Italy, but that the system has swallowed him up and forced him to play by its rules. He may get himself elected to the Senate, but it remains to be seen if he can avoid being eaten alive and spat back out again.