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Italy’s Dirty Linen


In most governments after 1963 the Socialist Party was a junior partner inside Christian-Democrat coalitions and readily adapted to the prevailing practices of clientelism and tangenti. The Socialists won only between 9 and 14 percent of the popular vote after 1948, as compared with the Christian Democrats, who had 33 to 40 percent, and the Communists, who won between 22 and 34 percent. Despite this numerical discrepancy the Socialist Bettino Craxi became prime minister in 1983, since his support was needed to provide the dominant party with a safe anti-Communist majority. In the late 1980s Craxi indignantly told Frei that he had never committed a single illegal act. A few years later he was convicted and given an eight-year prison sentence for some of the many crimes charged against him, and he then escaped to Tunisia pending an appeal. One of Craxi’s friends told the judges about stacking billions of illegally contributed lire in bundles at Socialist Party headquarters. Another friend confessed to having paid Craxi $16 million for favors, and the courts soon learned that this was only a small fraction of the illegal money that he or his party received.

Cabinet ministers from the Socialist Party, by demanding bribes before they took action, delayed rescue operations to save Venice from destructive flooding; they also siphoned off millions of dollars from the relief funds allocated to Bangladesh, Somalia, and Senegal. A Christian-Democrat minister of health was sent to prison for taking a regular cut from the money allotted for medicines, hospitals, and other help for patients with AIDS. One of this minister’s senior officials had such a stranglehold over the drug companies that he and his wife accumulated fourteen Swiss bank accounts and kept one hundred million US dollars in cash at his various apartments and houses, along with a hundred gold ingots. When arrested he said this represented “forty years of personal savings,” but unlike others he at least admitted to having “bent the rules a little.”

Such details could not be revealed before 1992 because, by a private agreement between the parties, hundreds of deputies and senators used parliamentary immunity as a means of avoiding investigation, exposure, and possible prosecution. But rumors of vast corruption and of lawless official behavior became more and more current. Possibly no other Western country has so many major mysteries of state, so many unsolved crimes that were one way or another linked to high officials. As Frei and McCarthy observe, the truth has still not been established about military coups that were allegedly threatened in 1964 and 1970. Nor do we have the full story of the misappropriation of relief funds on a huge scale after horrific earthquakes; or about the murderous bombing in Milan in 1969 and a subsequent bombing in Bologna that together killed over a hundred people. In each case the evidence was deliberately falsified by the authorities, presumably to protect those responsible. We know something, but hardly enough, about the ways that the P-2 Masonic lodge acted outside the law during the 1970s to bribe politicians and engage in other corrupt financial and political dealings. Its members included cabinet ministers, top military officers, judges, and leading industrialists.

Among the “illustrious deaths” of Italian public figures, the details of many are still vague—for example, details of the murder of Aldo Moro in 1978. The killing of the famous Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano in 1950 became clear only after a newspaper discovered that the official account was a cover-up by the police to conceal their complicity with the mafia. The circumstances surrounding the plane crash in which the highly controversial oil baron and public official Enrico Mattei died in 1962 remain unclear; so do many questions about the deaths of the iniquitous “Vatican bankers” Roberto Calvi and Michele Sindona in the early 1980s. The Christian-Democrat leaders who refused to negotiate with left-wing terrorists to save the life of Aldo Moro were nevertheless willing to save a minor kidnapped party official from the same terrorists, with whom, Frei tells us, they persuaded the infamous Neapolitan Camorra to intervene, and whom they then paid what seems to have been an enormous ransom.

These are only a few of a long series of mysteries in which the public has been inclined to suspect the worst since the authorities have concealed the truth. Fortunately, however, there has in recent years been much more openness after an unexpected shift in the balance of political forces. A necessary catalyst was the end of the cold war and the fall of the Berlin wall; many voters now felt they no longer had to support parties that for more than forty years, by magnifying and exploiting the fear of communism, had maintained an increasingly unmerited dominance over Italian politics.

Another momentous change came when the Italian Communist party dissolved itself in 1990, permitting its more moderate members to form a quite different Democratic Party of the Left, which the die-hards refused to join. In Sicily the Catholic mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, broke ranks with the discredited Christian Democrats to form an anti-mafia and anti-government group. Another Christian Democrat, Mario Segni, led a similarly divisive movement inside his party, hoping to displace the older generation of politicians by modifying the practice of proportional representation. Equally important in changing the political balance was the formation of Umberto Bossi’s Lombard League which, along with other regional groups in the north, achieved a remarkable electoral success as a populist party of protest against corruption and over-centralized government.

These new political groups, though they had little hope of winning a majority in parliament, and though their members often disagreed with each other, opened the way to new and quite different political alliances which reflected a growing popular frustration with the political establishment. Among Sicilians who, either from fear or insular pride, had frequently made excuses for the mafia, there was an increased awareness that this murderous organization was damaging their prosperity as well as their reputation in the outside world.

Government officials, too, after failing for decades to arrest convicted murderers who lived undisturbed in the center of Palermo, began to understand that the mafia connection, instead of winning votes as usual, might now do the opposite. It was too late for leading politicians to deny their own past by heading a movement for reform. But they were forced onto the defensive by a clause in the constitution that permitted the abrogation of existing laws by means of a popular referendum. Two such votes in 1991 and 1993 led to changes in electoral practices that allowed new parties more scope and left the Christian-Democratic and Socialist parties floundering. Distrust of the parties and of the government they installed was increased by their extravagant mismanagement of the economy. Lower profit margins forced some businessmen to resist demands for tangenti, a fact that not only reduced the amount of money available to politicians but at last encouraged aggrieved industrialists both to name the politicians who had been bleeding them and to seek protection from the courts.

Additional pressure on the Christian-Democrat politicians to accept changes in the system must have come, at least in private, from the Church; and much more publicly it came from the rest of Europe, where Italy’s mounting budget deficit diminished the country’s standing and credit-worthiness. Italians had enthusiastically joined the European common market but they caused offense by their reluctance to carry out many European Community decisions that they disliked. There was irritation in Brussels when EU funds allocated for the relief of poverty vanished into the pockets of politicians in Rome or were sometimes sent to southern farmers who turned out not to exist.

As the main parties lost face and lost respect, the courts were at last able to step into the vacuum of power and act effectively, with results that were immediate and dramatic. Politicians had for many years hindered the judiciary in its dealings with the mafia, but a group of courageous judges and policemen, notably Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in Palermo, took the initiative and scored important successes against the malavita. In places where witnesses had been too frightened to speak out, hundreds of senior and junior mafiosi, realizing that the usual political protection was no longer reliable, turned state’s evidence, while hundreds of others were imprisoned.*

In Milan, where the main problem was political corruption, Antonio Di Pietro and Francesco Saverio Borrelli led another group of investigating magistrates who brought to court a cross-section of the political and industrial elite, producing a mountain of incriminating evidence. Di Pietro quickly became the most popular man in the country, more popular than pop stars or soccer players and far more popular than any minister or prime minister. The very suddenness and completeness of this change was telling: it suggested that a small group of politicians had been allowed to flourish at the expense of the community.

The most prominent representatives of this political class were the Socialist Craxi and the Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti. The latter had been a minister in thirty governments since 1947 and was seven times prime minister, twice during the years between 1989 and 1992. As late as February 1992, Andreotti and Craxi expected to form a new government that would halt further investigations into political crime and perpetuate their joint condominium. Either was a possible candidate for the presidency of the republic; but in May 1992 their plans went awry when the brutal murder of Falcone by the mafia on a road near Palermo shocked the electoral college into choosing someone outside the main party machines. After fifteen inconclusive votes the choice fell on Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, a Christian Democrat with a reputation for probity and good judgment, qualities that were constantly required during the next three years. The sense of panic was intensified when Borsellino, too, was murdered by the mafia in Sicily, and when several former ministers were arrested in Milan. Parliament once more voted to protect Craxi from indictment but then changed its mind as a result of public indignation. The judicial officials announced that three other former prime ministers were under police investigation. Andreotti, the most powerful man in the country, finally volunteered to waive his own parliamentary immunity from prosecution. (His trial on charges of collaborating with the mafia has only just begun and may go on for years.)

With the political parties in such disarray, four emergency governments between 1992 and 1995 tried to restore confidence and repair the damage. The first was led by Giuliano Amato, a Socialist with a reputation for honesty who made a valiant attempt to contain the budget deficit both by reducing pensions and tax evasion and by starting to privatize state-owned enterprises. His successor in 1993, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, was a much respected governor of the Bank of Italy who had never been in parliament and was free from party affiliations. Ciampi’s government of unelected academics and technical experts had the great advantage of not needing to buy votes; its honesty in confronting the crisis won it more admiration than any other government since the days of De Gasperi in the early 1950s.

Its chief task was to change the existing procedure for parliamentary elections, something that the dominant parties had not been able to do without risking political suicide. Proportional representation had created a large number of parties in parliament, leading to coalition governments that were unable to act decisively, could not agree on necessary reforms, and were held together mainly by a corrupt involvement in patronage. Ciampi and his advisers suggested a majoritarian method of voting that might produce a more homogeneous parliamentary majority and a more coherent opposition. Hitherto the opposition parties, with no expectation of ever winning power, had lacked the incentive for constructive criticism and accepted that their best hope of influencing policy lay in some kind of half-hearted cooperation with the government.

Unfortunately Ciampi’s new law was watered down by parliament and the election of March 1994 produced ten different parties, so making another heterogeneous coalition inevitable. It was led by Silvio Berlusconi, one of the half a dozen richest people in Italy, a television, publishing, and real-estate mogul who had been a close ally of Craxi on the left, but now surprisingly allied himself with neo-fascists on the extreme right. Berlusconi’s new party, Forza Italia, organized only two months before the election, nevertheless won 21 percent of the vote, a brilliant success that was helped by his ownership of all the main commercial television stations (and of a leading soccer team in a country that is passionate about football). His promise to create a million new jobs gave him further popularity, although Frei points out that unemployment actually increased during his seven months in office. He also promised not to raise taxes; but the budget was already so far out of control that this was merely populist electioneering.

Berlusconi’s chief political weakness was that his two main coalition allies had entirely different aims: Umberto Bossi of the Northern League favored local autonomy and a federal division of Italy, while Gianfranco Fini, formerly an ardent fascist, inherited Mussolini’s belief in strong centralized government. Bossi was violently anti-fascist, while Fini called Mussolini the greatest politician of the century. But Fini was a skillful political strategist and in January 1994, realizing that identification with fascism had no future, he persuaded his neofacists to dissolve their party and change into what he now called the National Alliance. He announced that it was democratic, anti-totalitarian, and anti-racist; but it was also nationalistic, with some mild overtones of anti-Americanism.

Such an ill-assorted coalition was bound to be ineffective and its members were soon quarreling. It was also weakened in the eyes of public opinion by apparent conflicts of interest that Berlusconi took no serious step to correct. As well as controlling most of commercial television, he now used his position to appoint new managers of the state television network in order to curb criticism of his government. As prime minister he also controlled the public-sector banks to which his commercial enterprises were heavily in debt; it was suspicious that he refused many requests to create a blind trust and put his own enormous business empire in escrow. He also proposed an amnesty for indictments of tax evasion and illegal real-estate development, which was not reassuring when he himself came under judicial investigation for these same offenses. He attempted to hinder the judiciary in its prosecutions over tangenti and even arranged the release of some of the worst offenders, until public indignation forced him to back down. McCarthy concludes that Berlusconi was so busy looking after his personal interests that he had no time to consider serious political reforms. Frei finds his government an almost complete failure. The collapse of the stock exchange and in the value of the lira showed how wide the loss of public confidence had become at the end of his time in office. Forza Italia lost much of its previous share of the vote in the local elections of November 1994. (Berlusconi himself was recently indicted for bribery and faces a trial in January 1996.)

Both books under review take the story down to January 1995, when President Scalfaro appointed Lamberto Dini as prime minister for what was Italy’s fifty-fourth government in fifty years. Like Ciampi, Dini came from the much respected Bank of Italy and once again chose his ministers from outside parliament. During the following months he was remarkably successful in restoring confidence at home and in the international financial markets. But Italy’s deeper political problems will be solved only when another election shows whether a discredited political elite can be replaced. Since 1945 the country has not lacked admirable politicians—the Christian Democrats Alcide De Gasperi and Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, the Communists Giorgio Amendola and Enrico Berlinguer, the Socialists Norberto Bobbio and Giuliano Amato, the Republicans Ugo La Malfa and Giovanni Spadolini, not to mention economic experts such as Luigi Einaudi, Carlo Ciampi, Dini, and Romano Prodi, the University of Bologna economist and former state administrator who is now trying to put together a center-left coalition.

Writing in January, McCarthy concluded that, until either the left or a center-left coalition comes to power, the reform of the Italian state will be impossible. Since then, Dini’s stabilizing policy and Prodi’s partial success may justify at least some degree of optimism. Nor is it entirely out of the question that Fini or some other conservative may create a genuinely democratic party of the right. Frei adds that renovation will also require a collective change in mentality, a keener sense of political morality, and a greater trust in the state. Italy might then become what, with pardonable exaggeration, he calls a paradise on earth.

Unfortunately, Italian-style politics still seem an almost insuperable obstacle to good government. Not only does the present administration lack a safe parliamentary majority, but the two most prominent politicians in the country—Andreotti and Berlusconi—are being prosecuted for bribery and corruption. Not only has the autumn budget not yet been passed, but the public debt continues to spiral out of control while the value of the lira has been falling dramatically. Another election cannot be avoided in the next few months and will hardly produce a credible result if Dini is unable before then to curb Berlusconi’s virtual monopoly of commercial television. In other words, we may be watching the most critical test since 1945 of the Italian political system.


On ‘Italy’s Dirty Linen’ January 11, 1996

  1. *

    See Adrian Lyttelton’s review of Alexander Stille’s Excellent Cadavers, The New York Review, October 5, 1995.

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