Naples squeezed by political vice: Workers are unpaid, traffic-lights are broken, and births and deaths go unrecorded. Patricia Clough on a Neapolitan fiasco

'IT HAS all got to be done according to the rules,' insisted Arturo del Vecchio, deputy mayor of Naples, as he tried to ignore the maniacal howls of derision that echoed round the great stone council chamber.

The deputy mayor was having some trouble applying the rules. Half an hour earlier, a neo-fascist councillor had thrown a bucket of water at him to 'clean up' the council. Others simultaneously let off ear-splitting sirens, threw water bombs, seized his seat, knocked down the microphone and fought with his allies until the police pulled them apart.

Earlier, the police had ejected 200 other opponents, assorted greens, hard-line communists, anti-Mafia demonstrators and unionists who had occupied the hall for five days. Claiming to represent the citizens of Naples, they demanded fresh elections to 'liberate the city'.

Unfortunately for the deputy mayor, it had just been discovered that rather a lot of rules have been broken in Naples. In fact, a political Vesuvius had erupted which made the Milan corruption scandals look like a middle-sized tremor. And some of the red-hot ash was landing here, in the Maschio Angioino, the massive stone castle by the port which is the city hall.

The city's ruling parties, it emerged, did not just take rake- offs as in Milan and everywhere else. They, or so the magistrates believe, were hand-in-glove with the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. Five of their most illustrious politicians, including Antonio Gava, former interior minister and pillar of the Christian Democrat party, are under investigation for conniving with the Camorra.

Somewhere very secret, probably far away and carefully protected, a top man was 'singing'. He is Pasquale Galasso, son of a legendary boss from the Naples hinterland, now the No 2 to the Camorra's jailed capo di capi, or boss of bosses, Carmine Alfieri, the richest of all Mafiosi. A business wizard, he controlled the clan's money-recycling and investment operations and is said to have made some pounds 650m a year.

Galasso had a hair-raising tale to impart. It dated back to 1980 when politicians and Camorristi realised they could divide up the torrent of public money that was flowing in for reconstruction after the earthquake of that year. They went on to share the spoils of public works contracts, exchanged favours, did business. Alfieri is said to have become the top boss because of his political protectors. There were murders - some, it is alleged, ordered for political reasons.

Galasso is not the only pentito (grass), and these are not the only scandals. Magistrates are probing rake-offs to politicians for allowing the dumping of toxic waste from elsewhere, which no one is rushing to clean up.

There were murky deals over the funicular railway, the fast tramway and the works for the 1990 World Cup, as well as the alleged buying of votes with favours by the Neapolitan former health minister, Francesco de Lorenzo. 'And this,' says a Naples law reporter, 'is just the beginning.'

Furthermore, to make sure their cosy business was not disturbed, the Camorra allegedly corrupted the local judiciary: seven former key figures in the public prosecutor's office and the courts are believed to have favoured the Camorra in judgements, or passed on vital, confidential information.

The ordinary, daily woes of Naples seem negligible by comparison: the 20,600 city employees who have not been paid for weeks; the homeless and the unemployed; the fact that no births, marriages or deaths have been registered since 19 October 1991; or that some 200 of the city's 250 sets of traffic lights don't work, with effects that can be imagined.

The deputy mayor was in the hot seat last week because the mayor himself, a Socialist, Nello Polese, was under house arrest and had resigned. Five other members of the council have also been arrested and another 20 - of a total of 80 - are under investigation. Warrants are out for a further 115 people and hundreds more are under suspicion.

The aldermens' seats below the deputy mayor's desk were empty, except, that is, for colourful communist, green and Rete (anti-Mafia) stickers - an omen, perhaps, of what was to come? The city administration had collapsed nearly two months earlier and, according to the rules, the council had until next Tuesday to elect a mayor and new administration or it would be dissolved, the city would be placed in the hands of a government commissar and fresh elections would be called.

But Mr del Vecchio's Christian Democrats, the Socialists and their allies did not want elections, which might strip them of the power and privileges they had so long enjoyed in Naples. They want to hang on for the four years left to run. 'We have got to work in the interests of this city,' one insisted, amid hoots of incredulous laughter.

The opposition, right and left, was outraged. 'You want to escape the judgement of the people,' one councillor shouted. 'You represent only the business interests of corrupt politicians.'

For two days the ruling parties quietly, doggedly, sat out the shouting, filibustering, points of order, roll calls, heckling and insults, while even a Socialist leader in Rome begged his men to give up. And at dawn yesterday, with only four votes to spare, the Christian Democrats, Socialists and their friends finally had their mayor and new administration.

'Democracy is a corpse and the South will bury it,' declared the neo-fascist leader, Amadeo Laboccetta, promising a mass rally. 'The South can and must become ours.'

(Photograph omitted)