Old guard tiptoes back on to stage

Andrew Gumbel sees an old farce revived as Italy goes to the polls

IT WAS a disaster waiting to happen. On Tuesday night, five of Italy's political leaders were brought together on prime time television for a pre-election debate. What an unsightly crew they were - one reconstructed fascist, one reconstructed communist, a television magnate on trial for corruption, a bolshy northern separatist with the carefully cultivated image of a football hooligan, and a dour career banker doing his best to pretend he is running the country.

Within minutes, Messrs Fini, D'Alema, Berlusconi, Bossi and Dini were at each other's throats. First they yapped at each other about taxation, then about the justice system. Pretty soon it was impossible to tell what they were yapping about, because they were all talking at once and making no discernable sense whatsoever. Two-and-a-half hours later, the debate ended, all pretensions to political substance drowned out by pure noise. And these are the men who will theoretically be running the country after next Sunday's vote.

The occasion was perhaps a microcosm of everything that is wrong in Italian politics. Three years after the old governing classes were felled by corruption scandals, none of the country's deep structural ills have been cured; many have been exacerbated. Not only do governments still have a shorter shelf-life than Gorgonzola cheese, they do not even guarantee the thread of continuity once provided by the Christian Democrats and their allies, who ruled uninterrupted from 1946 until 1992. For the past 15 months, Italy has been ruled by a "technical" government with no politicians in it at all.

Parliament is, if anything, more unstable now, with 26 different party groupings as against 11 in 1992. Drafting effective legislation - or indeed drafting any legislation at all - remains as elusive as ever while political leaders spend progressively less time on policy documents and progressively more time arguing with each other on television.

There are no signs that this election will make things any better. A record 276 parties are presenting candidates, under the same byzantine, scarcely comprehensible voting system - an awkward hybrid of proportional representation and first-past-the-post - that proved depressingly ineffective at the last election, two years ago. There is no clear winner in view, voters are confused and apathetic, and the country seems inexorably headed for further protracted chaos.

Under the circumstances, some Italian voters are beginning to wonder if they weren't better off under the old system, warts and all. "They may have been crooks, but at least they knew what they were doing," is a refrain one hears more and more these days, from shopkeepers, from taxi- drivers, even from intellectuals and the new generation of politicians. Bettino Craxi, erstwhile leader of the Socialist Party, and Arnaldo Forlani, his opposite number at the Christian Democrats, may have overseen a vast network of favouritism, bribery and unholy power-broking, the argument runs, but at least they had proven leadership skills.

It would be wrong to describe the sentiment as a wave of nostalgia, but the old guard is making a comeback in Italian public life, albeit very slowly. Last November, at the height of a particularly crude public debate on immigration, the one-time Socialist Party golden boy turned convicted fraudster, Claudio Martelli, suddenly popped up on television and surprised everyone by his assured manner, calm tone and indisputable command of the issues.

A month ago, a flattering interview with Gianni De Michelis, the gargantuan, greasy- haired, disco-dancing former foreign minister facing trial on 18 counts of corruption, appeared in a supplement to the highly respectable Corriere della Sera, a paper unstinting in its support of the magistrates who brought the old system down.

Some of the more notorious representatives of the old order have even dared put themselves forward as candidates in this election, among them Ciriaco De Mita, a former Christian Democrat prime minister implicated in a scandal over the distribution of earthquake relief money in his fiefdom in the Naples hinterland, now running as an independent in his old constituency. Mr De Mita himself does not stand much chance of re-entering parliament, but others who have hitched themselves up to one of the two main coalition blocs do. They include Antonio Ruberti, a former Craxi acolyte and minister for the universities, now back running for the Centre Left, and any number of former Christian Democrats who have joined forces with parties across the spectrum.

What could possibly attract voters to such tarnished figures? The answer, according to members of the old guard themselves, is simple. "We were an experienced, professional political class," explained Mr De Michelis at his new home in a smart northern suburb of Rome. "This lot, with a few exceptions, are no more than amateurs. Just look at who they are - exponents of the two ideologies that have been defeated by history, communism and fascism, and a bunch of fourth-raters from the old governing parties who have hung on to their coat-tails."

The crisis of competence, according to Mr De Michelis, has come at a particularly sensitive time as Europe moves towards greater integration and the world establishes a post-Cold War order. "When I left the government, Italy was sure of meeting the Maastricht criteria," he said. "Now we risk being left out, with traumatic consequences. Just look at who has been in power. The Dini government is the worst Italy has ever known. Since it contains no politicians, it is by definition a government of amateurs, who have been so concerned to find consensus that they have sacrificed the interests of the country.

"Their pension reform last summer, for example, was virtually drawn up by the unions. If I'd negotiated that way when I was labour minister, I could have reformed the pensions system 10 years ago."

One can take issue with some of Mr De Michelis's arguments: Mr Dini has, in fact, tried to bring Italy in line with the Maastricht criteria by cutting the country's massive public debt, a debt that ran out of control in precisely the period when Mr De Michelis and his friends held sway. But he is no doubt right to highlight the dangers of a weak political class, the lack of effective leadership and Italy's inability to pull its weight on the European or the world stage.

Not that he is in any position to do anything about it himself. Mr De Michelis is intelligent enough to realise that there will never be a place for him now that he has been investigated for siphoning overseas development aid money into Socialist Party coffers and half-ruining his native city, Venice, in his efforts to aggrandise himself and his cronies.

"There's no way for me to express my views, because every time I open my mouth they call me a thief," he said. "There's no way of turning the clock back, so we just have to hope Italy can find some way out of the current impasse."

This most outsized of political personalities has not done badly for himself, despite his sudden removal from power. Indeed, Mr De Michelis enjoys the company of two live-in Filipino servants and a new girlfriend young enough to be his daughter in a large flat stuffed with the treasures he accumulated during his years in power - antique Venetian furniture, a whole cabinet full of silver platters, ornate glasswork from Murano and a collection of valuable paintings.

He has lost 15 kilos, keeps his once unruly hair short and well-washed, and this week sported an impressive early spring tan, thanks to a long Easter weekend spent on Capri. He receives a pounds 36,000 annual pension from the state, and also makes a healthy living acting as a business consultant to small firms setting up joint venture operations in China. At 55, he describes himself as semi-retired and essentially happy.

The same can be said for many of the old guard. Only one of the hundreds of politicians and business leaders investigated for corruption in the early 1990s has been convicted and sent to jail; the others have either got off with fines or else managed to drag out their cases almost indefinitely through the appeal courts.

The only prominent figures under significant stress are Mr Craxi, who is fighting off diabetes-induced gangrene while in self-imposed exile in Tunisia, and Giulio Andreotti, the grand old man of the Christian Democrats, now on trial on charges of Mafia collusion and murder.

If the judiciary has gone easy on the rest of them, it is largely thanks to Silvio Berlusconi, the television magnate who briefly served as prime minister in 1994. A good friend of Mr Craxi's who now has his own corruption cases to fight off, he declared war on the judiciary and succeeded in halting the energetic charge they had initiated two years earlier.

Mr De Michelis admitted he is a Berlusconi voter, but expressed considerable disappointment in the man's political prowess. "After all, he entered politics only two months before becoming prime minister. It would take a genius to learn the ropes in that time, and Berlusconi is no genius," he commented.

Apparently, plans are afoot to refound the Socialist Party, especially if next week's election proves as inconclusive as forecasts suggest. One former Craxi protege, Ugo Intini, has already drawn up a petition with 40,000 signatures, and others are planning to join him. "Do you know," Mr De Michelis said, "I think a new Socialist Party would pick up a tremendous number of votes."

The Italians may have learned to hate Mr De Michelis and his ilk, but if they do not get their political house in order soon, they could yet be drawn back to men very much like him.

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