Can Italy survive Dini's fall?

A government defeat today may let Berlusconi back for a decisive showdown, says Andrew Gumbel
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If Lamberto Dini's government falls in today's parliamentary no- confidence vote, it will spark far more than just another Italian political crisis. This time, it spells serious trouble. Three years after the collapse of the old political order under a sea of corruption scandals, Italy is further than ever from creating the healthy new democracy it had hoped for.

As a non-political premier, Mr Dini was supposed to have been the man to dig Italy out of the last hole it fell into following the resignation of his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi. But now, buffeted by inter-party rivalries in the country's hopelessly divided parliament, he looks likely to fall victim to the same process of political meltdown that led to his appointment in the first place.

The timing could not have been worse, since the 1996 budget - crucial to keeping Italy's runaway public deficit in check - lies undebated by parliament and if the government falls, risks being scuppered altogether. That, in turn, is likely to send the lira and Italy's stock and bond markets into a tailspin and put the country's future in the mainstream of European nations into serious question.

But, even more seriously, the catalyst for today's no-confidence vote - the dismissal of Filippo Mancuso, Mr Dini's controversial justice minister - has sparked a furious debate about the impartiality of the judiciary and the high institutions of the state, which in turn risks poisoning the very foundations of Italian democracy.

It has been an extraordinary debate. Mr Mancuso, an unelected and unpopular jurist, has used his office to launch a full-front attack on the Milan magistrates who single-handedly brought down the old political order with their anti-corruption investigations, and who are generally regarded by public opinion as heroes.

Over the spring and summer, Mr Mancuso launched wave after wave of inspections on the Milan team. There may have been some substance to his suspicions - after all, it would be astonishing if a handful of investigating magistrates could bring a whole political generation to book without breaking a few rules. But Mr Mancuso did not relent even when his own inspectors failed to find evidence of wrong-doing. Instead, he accused everyone from the president down of conspiring in a cover-up, and described Mr Dini as "servile" for refusing to stand by him.

Mr Mancuso became a liability to the government and, at the urging of the centre-left, was removed following a no-confidence vote in the Senate last week. But by then he had become more than just a wayward minister waging a one-man vendetta; he had become the perfect foil for Mr Berlusconi, who has his own fight to wage against the judiciary, since he is about to go on trial for irregularities in his company's tax accounts.

Indeed, the struggle to get rid of Mr Dini makes no sense without looking at Mr Berlusconi's motivation and what he represents. When he swept into politics and into power in the first three months of 1994, he presented himself as a champion of the anti-corruption drive that had felled the old generation of politicians, and the standard-bearer of a new, clean politics in which he would treat Italy as a giant corporation and apply his entrepreneurial talents to running the country.

In fact, though, Mr Berlusconi's whole political and business culture was steeped in the old system. He owed his near-monopolistic control of private television to his old friend, the former Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, who was at the epicentre of the anti-corruption investigations. As his premiership progressed, it became clear he was not a revolutionary, but rather the vanguard of a counter-revolution. Instead of completing the clean-up of public life, he did all he could to bring it to a halt. Far from encouraging the anti-corruption drive being conducted by the Milan magistrature, his government first tried to call a general amnesty and then launched inspections in an attempt to discredit the magistrates' work.

Mr Berlusconi's premiership was stopped in its tracks when he himself came under investigation for corruption and his fractious coalition collapsed last December. But his ambitions remain intact. Lord Dahrendorf recently likened him to the new breed of political leader prevalent in South-east Asia, who preach economic liberalism at the expense of democratic freedoms. Indeed, Mr Berlusconi has often looked like a man irritated by the niceties of parliamentary democracy.

He has treated the judiciary - from individual magistrates right up to the supreme judicial authority, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro - with a disdain that has gone beyond personal animosity and bordered on hostility towards the institutions of the law themselves. Revealingly, he recently described the ongoing trial of Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister, as a blot on the image of Italian goods in the export market, as though justice were some kind of customs tariff that, in an ideal free-trade world, would not need to exist at all.

As a direct result of Mr Berlusconi's attitude, the role of the judiciary has been thrust into the centre of political debate. As well as applauding Mr Mancuso, Mr Berlusconi's allies have launched attacks on the Milan magistrates, accusing them of mounting political witch-hunts and serving the interests of the political left. The left, meanwhile, has sought to capitalise on the popularity of the magistrates to discredit Mr Berlusconi, and indeed has made great efforts to woo Antonio Di Pietro, the most prominent of the magistrates, who resigned mysteriously last year and now harbours ambitions to enter politics.

Mr Dini has had the near-impossible task of keeping the country on track and trying to ignore mounting political passions. His mandate was tough enough as it was: to prevent the country's dangerously high public debt from spiralling out of control, and to prepare the ground as quickly as possible for fresh elections that would end the political instability once and for all.

Mr Dini has made some progress on the first point, cutting the budget deficit for the first time ever, in a supplementary financial package for 1995, and beginning the huge task of reforming the inefficient and debt-laden pensions system. But on the second point he has made no headway at all. The electoral system that failed to deliver a decisive majority to Mr Berlusconi in March 1994 has not been touched. Attempts to address the massive propaganda power of Mr Berlusconi's three private television networks have been fragmentary and unsuccessful.

This is not exactly Mr Dini's fault. He has been faced with a seemingly unbendable paradox: that the cause of the political instability, a divided parliament, has also been the main obstacle to doing anything about it. Mr Berlusconi and his allies don't want him to be able to change the rules; they want to get back into power and change them themselves.

To do so, they will have to convince the electorate that they are right about the justice system. How else can Mr Berlusconi explain away the fact that he is due to stand trial in January? The people will have to decide if he is the victim of a witch-hunt, a true reformer frustrated by low conniving on the part of the judiciary and his political adversaries, or just a regular bad guy trying to discredit the judiciary to further his own ambitions. It is a debate whose price may be the political and economic stability of the whole country.

Hamish McRae is away.