His fall has electrified the country - not because Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister, life senator, the post-war leader who outlasted De Gaulle, Adenauer, Truman and Stalin, is under investigation for conniving with the Mafia. Any reasonably streetwise Italian will say he 'knew' it all the time - meaning, in fact, that it was gossiped about, it made sense, even though no one had the slightest scrap of proof. 'I'll believe things are changing when they get Andreotti,' muttered my greengrocer recently, and the admiring cynicism in his voice implied that Andreotti was far too sly a fox to get caught.
The shock, the delight and indeed the slight nervousness derive from the fact that for the first time the magistrates have been able to voice such grave suspicions about the politician who was seen to be the most powerful, most cunning and most untouchable of all. For decades magistrates who tried (and many did not bother) to probe murky doings by ruling politicians, or who sought to follow the strange threads that seemed to link bomb attacks, terrorism, mysteries and scandals with Rome, were warned off or forced to drop the cases, or found the material transferred to others who would quietly bury it. Sometimes it could have been self-censorship by the judiciary, sometimes political pressure. And the bottom line was always the rationale dogging Italy since the war: 'We don't want the Communists to get to power, do we?'
The implications of the magistrates' latest move are appalling. Can a man who, more than anyone else, personified Italian politics at home and abroad for half a century have been in league with the Mafia? Can a sworn representative of the state have been allied to a criminal organisation which regards itself as a state within the state - or, more accurately, an anti-state? Can he, despite his government's anti-Mafia laws, have connived with and protected the authors of terrible massacres and murders, enabled them to gain power over large areas of Italy, to build up worldwide drugs and arms-running empires?
Of course, Mr Andreotti has not yet been 'got'. As serious commentators keep reminding Italians - and most prefer to forget - he has received notice of investigations, which does not even amount to a charge, much less a conviction. On the other hand, even more than in the case of Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister and the other star suspect, the magistrates have been taking their time, apparently to be particularly sure they have a solid case. It took nine months' investigations before the Palermo magistrates produced their 250-page case asking the Senate for permission to proceed.
Their request has been formulated very cleverly. Does the Senate, they will ask, wish the judiciary to press ahead with investigations into links between politicians and the Mafia? It can hardly say no, and that should clear the way in principle for prosecution not only of Mr Andreotti but also other powerful political figures under the same suspicion. The magistrates may have learnt from the refusal of parliament to lift the immunity from minor Calabrian politicians accused of conniving with the 'Ndrangheta, the local Mafia.
Once the Senate has given the green light, the case against Mr Andreotti, if it stands up, would follow the normal path of any prosecution through the courts. And this, since Italian justice is appallingly slow, could take 10 years or more and be bogged down in endless legal quibbles. (Ironically, one of the purposes of the government's attempted 'political solution' to the scandals, which caused so much outrage since it would have kept some politicians out of prison, was to speed up this process so that the country could see justice was being done.)
The case would in itself be a test of how far Italy's clean-up has reached. For just as Palermo has been found to have Mafia-tainted policemen, court officials and prosecutors, some judges have come under suspicion after inexplicably acquitting Mafia bosses or
reducing their sentences, allegedly thanks to pressure from political quarters. The best known among these judges is Dr Corrado Carnevale, said to be a friend of Mr Andreotti's, whose judgments on mafiosi in the Supreme Court earned him the nickname of ammazzasentenze - the sentence-killer. But he is now under investigation by his own colleagues and the strings that once pulled such people may have been cut.
At the same time Mr Andreotti is an extraordinarily clever man and doubtless will have gifted lawyers. His name has come up in many mysteries and scandals over the years but always, as La Repubblica's editor, Eugenio Scalfari, put it, he 'passed through the flames like a salamander'. He could well do so again.
Meanwhile, Mr Andreotti is likely to find his considerable power slipping from him. Although those affected justifiably protest that it is unfair, a notice of investigation amounts almost to the end of a political career. Most resign from government or party positions, many try not to be seen in public, big leaders are abandoned by their followers.
Mr Andreotti has been less prominent in public life since he ceased to be prime minister a year ago but he has remained head of an important faction in the Christian Democrats, and doubtless he still retains those
innumerable contacts he has built up in all areas of Italian life. Now, however, many of his closest associates are themselves under investigation or even arrest, and since such grave suspicion has fallen on him many may be less keen to do his bidding.
He certainly will not be the last politician to come under suspicion. But in this extraordinary twilight of the gods that have ruled over Italy since the war, he is the greatest to fall. Only allegations against the President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, could cause comparable shock waves, and that because they are the two apparently honest men trying valiantly to tow Italy from the wreckage of its First Republic to the safety of a Second, and not because of any power they once held.
The great glee and rejoicing that have accompanied Andreotti's disgrace belie the support and admiration he enjoyed not all that long ago. For the way in which Italians have turned against their democratically elected rulers, who they 'knew' had feet of clay, is reminiscent of popular revolutions in the past when mobs turned against their idols. 'This Andreotti whom all want to pillory and condemn - is he not the same Andreotti whom people admired for his cynicism, his honour, his cool, his Olympian calm?' asked Marcello Pera yesterday in his column in La Stampa. 'Is he not the same Andreotti who once was courted, petted, admired, applauded?
'Is he not the one whose quips
became household expressions and whose books bestsellers? And finally, most surprisingly of all, is he not the same Andreotti who was once the (parliamentary) candidate with the most votes in all Italy?'
Mr Pera's remarks raise a subject that is far less fun for Italians than the sight of their once untouchable politicians being marched off to a moral guillotine: the votes, the acceptance, the complicity of the public that enabled them to do what they did for so long. 'If we knew about it,' he points out, 'why did we not do something about it?'
This self-examination is slow in coming, but come it must if the Italian revolution is not to produce the same political results as before.
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