Leading Article: Can they topple the president?

UNTIL now the Italian people have mostly enjoyed the revolution that has been sweeping through their political system and the upper reaches of industry, cleaning out the accumulated corruption of 45 years. Since Wednesday night they may have started to worry that the process could get out of control and destabilise the state. That was when President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro went on television to deny that he had accepted illegal payments from the secret services while minister of the interior in the 1980s.

President Scalfaro has been seen as a guarantor that the revolution can be carried out within the constitution and without wholly disrupting the process of government. Although a senior member of the Christian Democratic Party, he has been a credible supporter of reform because of his record as a radical outsider, moralist and particularly devout Catholic. No one seemed better suited to seeing the country through a period of severe turbulence while preserving the basic fabric of the state. If he survives, he will be the stronger for having exposed his enemies. If he falls, the shock to confidence will be severe.

Because of his success so far, he has made powerful enemies. The secret services, as in other countries hit by revolution, identify themselves with the besieged establishment. They are not only threatened with reform themselves but also have close relations with discredited politicians such as Giulio Andreotti and Bettino Craxi. If they can topple the President by exposing something discreditable in his past, parliament will have to elect a successor. Since one in five members of parliament is under investigation, and many more fear their turn is to come, a majority might vote for a candidate who would put the clock back. They would hope that by doing so they could postpone elections under a new electoral law and save their seats.

This prospect also sustains hopes among senior politicians that they may still have a political future or, if not, that they can at least halt proceedings against them. Public outrage and a constitutional crisis would be, for them, a modest price to pay for personal safety.

Clearly, therefore, a very strong motive exists in some quarters for discrediting the President. Whether sufficient evidence will be produced to destroy him remains uncertain. For anyone to have spent the past 45 years in Italian politics without some money sticking to his fingers would be highly unusual, but President Scalfaro has always been different. The evidence will have to be strong to overcome the public's presumption of innocence and its strong desire for reassurance.