Umberto Bossi
Umberto Bossi; drawing by David Levine

Most of Italy’s political leaders, together with numerous other politicians, have been swept out of public life during the last two years. The CAF, a convenient acronym for the three most powerful political figures of the 1980s, Bettino Craxi, Giulio Andreotti, and Arnaldo Forlani, has been entirely eclipsed. Craxi’s Socialist Party (for which socialism was no more than a remote tribal memory) has been almost annihilated, and the successors of Andreotti and Forlani in the long-dominant Christian Democrat Party are grimly attempting to remake what remains of it with the unconvincing title Partito Popolare (the name of the Catholic center party in the 1920s).

More than three thousand political figures, businessmen, and senior government officials are under criminal investigation for a vast series of corrupt acts which are known collectively as “Tangentopoli” (“Bribesville”). Approximately one third of all members of Parliament are involved. The president of the Republic, the Christian Democrat Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, is under a shadow because of the illegal sums he allegedly received while he was minister of the interior between 1983 and 1987, and he would probably be under official investigation himself if he were a private citizen (though the accusations in this case come from a suspect source, officials of the SISDE, the internal secret service, who are themselves under investigation).

This near revolution has been the work of public prosecutors in several cities, of whom the most conspicuous have been Antonio Di Pietro and his chief, Francesco Saverio Borrelli, in Milan.1 Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”), as the investigative operation is called, is as remarkable, and as much in need of historical explanation, as Tangentopoli itself.


The public perception that Tangentopoli is a single story rather than a series of discrete events seems to be largely correct, but the scandal involved many different kinds of corruption. Construction and engineering companies paid off regional and local governments to get contracts for public works. Blatant greed reached into ministries in Rome, and one of the most detested bribe-takers, Duilio Poggiolini, feathered his nest for thirteen years as the most powerful official in the Ministry of Health. He accepted gifts from pharmaceutical companies, including American companies, on such a scale that he amassed a hugely valuable collection of paintings and coins. While working for the ministry, he received, among many other bribes, some 10,500 Swiss francs a month ($7,100) from a German pharmaceutical company, which was more than his government salary.2 The carabinieri searched his villa in vain for caches of money, but Signora Poggiolini later told them where to look, and some 10 billion lire’s (about $6 million) worth of certificates of deposit were found in a cushion. This was a tiny fraction of the Poggiolini fortune. It was in effect Poggiolini’s job to approve increases in drug prices.

Few in Italy doubt that a considerable number of ministers accepted bribes during the period of Tangentopoli for their own private use, and some of them have admitted to doing so. But another vital part of the story was the illegal financing of political parties. The alliance of Christian Democrats, Socialists, and other center parties had controlled national politics since the 1960s, and by and large showed itself sympathetic to big business interests. Some of the businesses most in need of government contracts and favors contributed generously to party finances. One of the largest single recipients of illegal donations, according to government prosecutors, was Bettino Craxi, prime minister from 1983 to 1987 of the most durable government in the history of the Republic, and also secretary of the Socialist Party from 1976 until 1993. From a single source, the chemical concern Montedison, he is said to have accepted some 85 billion lire (about $50 million) for his part in arranging for the government to buy Montedison’s interest in the Enimont company at an inflated price.

Bribery is a difficult subject for historians. Concepts of corruption vary from country to country and age to age—there is not even one single Italian word for “bribe”—and in any case, most bribes are apt to remain permanently secret. It is not sufficient to say that “everyone does it,” and common sense tells us that some periods, places, and classes are more corrupt than others.3 Everyone agrees that in its last years Italy’s First Republic, which came into being in 1946 and will come to an end with the national election of March 27, suffered from politicians who were especially uninhibited in this respect.

An explanation of Tangentopoli which is widely accepted in Italy is the absence of alternanza (taking turns) in postwar Italian government. Since the Socialist–Christian Democrat coalition, with its allies in the small Republican, Liberal, and Social Democrat parties—all of whom together made up the pentapartito or five-party coalition government4—was never in danger of being voted out of national office and hence never seemed in danger of official investigation, the politicians could take bribes and make corrupt deals without fear of punishment. Japan has suffered widespread corruption for similar reasons. The lack of alternanza in Italy largely resulted from the electoral system, under which proportional representation virtually guaranteed that centrist alliances would rule for ever. Hence one reaction to Tangentopoli was an electoral reform, approved by referendum in April 1993. Under the new system, which will be used in the March 27 election, three quarters of the members of each house will be elected by the system used in the United States and Britain, under which a single candidate wins the entire constituency. Small parties will suffer, and a division of the country into two contending political alliances may well follow. The result, according to optimists, will be a more responsible and responsive government. (In Britain, meanwhile, many believe that this happy result could be produced by a reform in exactly the opposite direction, the introduction of proportional representation all’italiana).5


Such an explanation of Tangentopoli seems incomplete. It should not be forgotten that the reign of the pentapartito coincided with a great wave of middle-class consumption and a marked spread of the appetite for second houses, vacations in Indonesia, and objets d’art. Tangentopoli, it has to be said, was a white-collar crime, a bourgeois crime, perhaps not quite a class crime (all citizens were its victims), but one which fitted an era of secure center-right power. One of the remarkable things about the last few months is how little this has been said—a clear sign that communism, as distinct from the heirs of the Italian Communist Party, is now marginal in Italy.

But there was one more important factor, which can be summed up in the word lottizzazione (untranslatable, roughly “dividing up”), the system by which the political parties of Craxian Italy divided up jobs and privileges so that the adherents of each party received their share. The symbol and the most public example of this system was the RAI-TV, the state television: one channel was Christian Democrat, the second Socialist, and the third Communist. This system made the rule of the parties enormously strong, and helped them to operate with confidence and impunity; and it makes the victory of Mani Pulite all the more surprising.

Mani Pulite could never have happened without highly courageous and determined prosecutors. While Borrelli, Di Pietro, and their colleagues have never been in as much danger as the senior anti-Mafia prosecutors, two of whom were assassinated within a short period in the summer of 1992, it took extraordinary persistence to obtain evidence against many of the most powerful men in Italy. And since the recent leaders of Italy’s internal Secret Service were implicated last October, the risks may have intensified.

Criminal designs have a way of unravelling. Like Watergate, Tangentopoli started to come apart almost by accident, but before long the process gained great momentum. Not that the existence of Tangentopoli was a secret during the 1980s: its structure could be described with reasonable accuracy long before the great revelations. 6 However it was Di Pietro’s arrest of Mario Chiesa, a Socialist Party functionary in Milan, on February 17, 1992, which started the avalanche. When he realized what was happening, Chiesa flushed 30 million lire ($18,000) down a toilet, but it was too late, and his testimony soon led to much bigger things than his accepting bribes to award hospital cleaning contracts and kickbacks from funeral homes, which were Chiesa’s specialties. Di Pietro, a computer enthusiast as well as a former police official, already had damning evidence of Chiesa’s financial operations from his analysis of databases, and after his arrest the investigation quickly expanded until in July 1992 it reached the construction magnate Salvatore Ligresti, one of the richest men in Italy. That in effect made it a national case, no longer just a Milanese one.7

Few of the Mani Pulite investigations have yet come to trial (the Enimont trial is under way in Milan), but they already deserve to be seen as an impressive national achievement. It seems even more impressive when one recalls that the Italian state has simultaneously been engaged in an exceedingly difficult and still continuing struggle against organized crime, in which it has finally had the satisfaction of sending to prison Salvatore (“Totò”) Riina, the boss of the mafiosi bosses. He was found and locked up, after some help from the FBI, on January 15, 1993.

But instead of being proud of itself, Italy seems gripped by severe political angst, “a widespread climate of civic depression” in the words of the political scientist Giovanna Zincone.8 Some current expressions of angst are disingenuous, and mask nothing more novel than fear of a reformist left-wing government. But there are wellintentioned people of the center who seem deeply pessimistic about the prospects of making the necessary transition to a new regime. Just recently the political commentator Sergio Romano has argued that there is no way of legitimating the next regime without a convention to review the “obsolete” parts of the Italian constitution.9 For many Italians it is simply naive to hope that the shock of Tangentopoli and Mani Pulite, combined with the reformed electoral law, will give the Second Republic great advantages over the First.



It is true that the nation is faced with a number of intractable problems in addition to Tangentopoli and organized crime. Some of them—a third-rate health-care system, for instance, and ineffective policies concerning immigration and race—it shares with many other advanced countries. But some are peculiar to Italy. Of these the most severe is probably the budget deficit, currently running at an annual rate equivalent to about 10 percent of GDP. Even if it declines to about 8 percent this year, it will still be much the highest figure in the European Community apart from Greece.10 The result is a monstrous debt, equivalent to about 120 percent of GDP.

The causes of this deficit are well known. One is the public sector of the economy, which is relatively speaking much the largest in the Group of Seven or in the European Community (in part, but only in part, a legacy of fascism). When IRI, the state holding company, which runs many different companies including banks and industrial firms, loses money—as it does on a large scale—the state pays. Vast expenditure is also devoted to what is called assistenzialismo, a derogatory way of referring to the state pension system11 and the whole complex machinery by which public money is spent for social purposes. Some of these expenditures are entirely necessary or indeed admirable, but others less so, and the burden is heavy. The wastefulness and corruption of the public sector have been fostered by the enduring system of lottizzazione. Furthermore, Italy’s tax system is too centralized for local politicians to feel any responsibility for keeping public expenditure under control.12 Tax evasion contributes to the deficit, and Italian investors have contributed to it unintentionally by buying government bonds (on profitable terms).

The consequences of the deficit are impossible to predict. The economy is currently benefiting from the devaluation of the lira which took place in September 1992, when Italy was forced out of the European currency “snake.” The difficulty is that the national debt, already regarded by some economists as unsustainable, will continue to grow unless the government puts the brakes on public expenditure more firmly than the present prime minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, has been willing to. Whoever forms a government after the election of March 27 will be faced with hard economic choices concerning unemployment, inflation, and cuts in government expenditures.


What will the new political Italy look like? There will no doubt be surprises, like the strong showing of the neofascist (technically “Italian Social Movement,” or MSI) candidates in the Rome and Naples municipal elections last November. But a new political structure is gradually coming into view.

The first new grouping to succeed on a large scale were the secessionist northern Leagues led by Umberto Bossi. The Lega Nord, an umbrella organization covering six regional leagues, has risen dramatically in the last four years, ostensibly on a vague platform of federalism, in reality by appealing to northern dislike of anything and anyone from farther south, including the government in Rome. In the election of April 1992 the Lega Nord won 55 seats in the lower house of Parliament (which has 630 members), including one for Bossi himself. Since last June the mayor of Milan has been a leghista, Mario Formentini, and the leghe are expected to gain further parliamentary strength in March. In a recent poll they received 16 percent of the national vote.13

Umberto Bossi, now fifty-two, attended medical school for a time at the University of Pavia, but never succeeded at anything before he founded the Lega Lombarda in 1979. He gives the impression of being a very unstable character. Both he and the party “ideologue” Professor Gianfranco Miglio (who in years past dabbled unsuccessfully in Christian Democrat politics) are fond of violent rhetoric and crude insults, and have threatened to use Kalashnikovs if their aims are frustrated.14 In September Bossi publicly informed the magistrates who were taking an interest in his party’s finances that their lives were worth only three hundred lire, the price of a bullet.15 The senatur, as he is often called (in Lombard dialect), often steps back from his most violent pronouncements soon after making them, but they are clearly calculated to appeal to many northern Italian voters. Sexual innuendo is also part of his repertory, and his constant references to his own “hardness” have added the word celodurismo (it means approximately “boasting about one’s hardness”) to the political lexicon. His debased use of language has not yet had much practical effect, and hardly anyone supposes that the leghisti are insane enough to use violence or risk creating what one political cartoonist has depicted as “Bossnia.” But his words might one day, in an acute political crisis, encourage some of his followers to isolated violent acts.16

The appeal of the leghe is multiple. A full explanation of leghismo would have to explore its similarities to secessionism in other lands, especially Catalonia and Croatia. But it is obvious that Italy’s nineteenth-century unification left local pride in, and identification with, one’s city and region as strong as in any country in Europe. The northern regions have always been very conscious of being the most prosperous and the most modern, and had already started to speak of a “southern question”—i.e., of the backwardness of the south—in the 1870s. The existence of the European Community may have contributed to the weakening of support for the Italian state by creating an alternative political center. And the rise of the leghe may itself have served to strengthen northern particularism. Dislike of southerners, however, is a dominant source of leghista feeling.17

Resentment over taxes is also one of the reasons for the popularity of the leghe. Since the northerners are richer, they pay more taxes, and huge amounts of this money have flowed southward, via Rome, in the name of economic development. This policy is generally accounted a failure (though anyone who has visited Puglia or Campania periodically since the 1960s may be inclined to think that it has been a considerable success), and in any case it is not popular in the plain of the Po.

The leghe have benefited from the very vagueness of their political program. Bossi’s federalism has never been defined with any precision. Sometimes it has seemed to leave the Italian state in existence, while giving a high degree of financial and cultural autonomy to each “macro-region.” Sometimes he has conjured up three separate states, such as “Padania” in the north, “Etruria” in the center of the country, and the “Repubblica del Sud,” a project which has provoked a great deal of rather nervous hilarity.

The local elections on December 5 were thought by some commentators to have amounted to a set-back for the Lega, since it failed to elect the mayor of Genova or Venice, but the Lega did win in many smaller cities from Liguria to the Veneto, averaging about 30 percent of the vote in the first round. Nonetheless the Lega Nord is at present somewhat at a loss, uncertain how to move forward in the period leading to the election on March 27. Bossi has run up against the limits of the power that he could obtain as a Lombard rabble-rouser. Since it is scarcely possible that he will win more than 20 percent of the seats of the national Parliament, he is in danger of going nowhere.

His response has been stunningly opportunistic. He needs allies, and allies who have some prospects. One attractive gamble was an alliance with Mario Segni, an ex–Christian Democrat and son of a former president, who has been trying to piece together a new centrist party (most politicians now claim to be centrist) with the name Patto per l’Italia (“Pact for Italy”). In the last week of January this tentative alliance was rejected by Bossi, who characteristically did not make his reasons clear. But he still needs allies. Since Segni and all other potential allies are wedded to national unity, Bossi has declared that federalism, which was previously his gospel, was only a “hypothesis” and a “provocation.”18 So much for the policy which as recently as November led some close observers to think that the Italian state was on the verge of disintegrating.19 How the retreat from federalism will sit with Bossi’s followers will emerge in March; it would not be surprising if some of them felt betrayed.

Leghismo can scarcely be exported to other parts of the peninsula except as a minor eccentricity. Who else is there to vote for in the center of the country and the south? One answer emerged in November, when run-off local elections in many cities, including Rome and Naples, pitted a left coalition against a neo-fascist candidate. Gianfranco Fini in Rome and Alessandra Mussolini (movie starlet and granddaughter of the dictator) in Naples came close to winning, with 47 and 44 percent of the vote respectively. It apparently made little difference that during the week before the vote La Repubblica demonstrated that Mussolini had lied about her education and her profession in an official document when she was elected to Parliament in 1992 as a deputy of the MSI.20 (She claimed she had graduated from medical school and had qualified as a medical doctor.)21

This strong neo-fascist vote invites a number of reflections, concerning for example the lack of historical consciousness among many of the less educated members of the public. One can sometimes hear it said that the only thing wrong with Benito Mussolini was the mistake he made in allying Italy with Hitler. The election results clearly showed that many ex–Christian Democrat voters are prepared to vote for virtually anyone who opposes left-of-center coalitions, even when, as in the Rome election, the left candidate was not a Communist but a member of the relatively pragmatic Green Party. (This was Francesco Rutelli, who since becoming mayor seems to have done nothing more radical than go to work on a motor-bike.) Fini, who is forty-two, has been the leader of the MSI since the late 1980s. He has been an admirer of Mussolini and his regime for much of his adult life but he now calls himself a “postfascist” in an attempt to appeal to more moderate voters. The party itself has changed its name to Alleanza Nazionale (“National Alliance”) but it has little to offer in the way of leaders or ideas.

Many others are seeking to fill the vacuum left behind by the pentapartito. Most visible among these, and another possible ally for Bossi, or for Fini, is Silvio Berlusconi, who owns among other things the three most successful private TV stations, two of Italy’s largest publishing houses (Einaudi and Mondadori), the largest supermarket chain in the country (Standa), and AC Milan, which has an excellent chance of winning the national soccer championship for the third year in a row. He regards himself as the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit, and in a modern sense he is, since he owes much of his empire to an exchange of favors with politicians, in particular with Bettino Craxi, who in 1984 gave him crucial help in establishing his television empire, contrary to previous laws.22 Never having held political office, or articulated any political program more specific than a somewhat anachronistic anticommunism, he seems to believe that he can become a national savior. His influence, even more than that of Bossi and Miglio, is a consequence of the heavy casualties in the old political leadership. Large amounts of money are being devoted to the creation of Berlusconi’s artificial political party, Forza Italia (“Come on, Italy!” the cry of a sports fan), with a certain degree of success; a recent poll gave Forza Italia as much as 13 percent of the vote.23 There is, however, some natural suspicion that Berlusconi still needs politicians very badly. Fininvest, his holding company, has huge debts, and more crucially still, a reformminded government is likely to look unfavorably on his near monopoly of commercial television, particularly if he makes highly partisan political use of it during the campaign.

Other significant actors in the election will be the Partito Popolare and its leader, Mino Martinazzoli—refugees, like Segni and his supporters, from the former Christian Democratic Party and potential electoral allies with them—and possibly the small Republican Party. How the politicians of the center and right will group themselves was still far from being clear or predictable at the beginning of February.

Finally there is the immensely intricate story of the left. Unlike almost every other Communist Party, the Italian party (PCI) has succeeded in re-creating itself, thanks to its perceived independence from Moscow as well as to the widely felt need for a reformist party. The party was little involved in Tangentopoli, and although this was perhaps partly a consequence of the party’s not being in power in Rome, the reputation of its somewhat colorless leader, Achille Occhetto, like that of his immediate predecessors, is free of charges of corruption. Occhetto is fifty-seven, a party functionary who took over as secretary in 1988 after spending his entire working life in the party apparat, first in its youth federation, later in Sicily, and then in Parliament. For decades the PCI was the only serious opposition to the Christian Democrat–Socialist coalition, and now it may be about to reap the reward. But it is not the PCI of old. It has changed its name and to some extent its nature. It became the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) just after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the left is now fond of referring to itself as progressista, a conveniently vague term which includes positions that appeal both to feminists and ecologists. The PDS program also includes privatization, and is in general so mildly reformist that some of the more intelligent big business figures say in public that they can readily live with an Occhetto government. “We want monetary stability,” a PDS representative told The European, “and a reduction of public sector debt.”24 The success of the PDS in the local elections of December 5 produced no tremors in the financial markets.

The PCI was once, in 1976, close to government power, but the opposing forces, including the influence of the United States, were too strong. The PDS has a number of allies as March 27 approaches, such as the Greens and the anti-Mafia grouping La Rete (“The Network”). If this alliance wins the election it seems likely, in the view of most analysts, to form a moderate, not to say milk-and-water government. Some of its supporters may hope for radical measures, but they are likely to be disappointed since the government’s very survival will constantly depend on the votes of its most moderate members of Parliament. In spite of this, the right and the Lega, as distinct from the centrists, are fighting a bitter campaign and will not accept a leftcenter government without a struggle. Even if they succeed, however, they will probably not be able to prevent the emergence of what Italy has so long lacked, two large political forces and alternanza.

In the coming election there are likely to be at least two anti-left groups of some size. The prediction of the experienced observer Giovanni Sartori that Segni and Bossi would not be able to construct a unified center25 seems to have been proved correct, and the most likely alignment includes a center-right alliance (Segni and the Partito Popolare) and a truly rightist alliance (Berlusconi with Fini and perhaps Bossi). But Italians, unlike Americans, are used to a system in which they can vote for a party that expresses their political views with some accuracy. There are currently some thirteen parties or quasi-parties with significant national support, and a stable and tidy twoparty system (an unusual phenomenon in any case) is not easy to imagine in Italy. Still, the new voting system strongly favors the formation of alliances, and neither the moderate left nor the moderate right can ignore this fact. At present many center and rightwing politicians are behaving as if the old electoral law were still in place; if they continue to do so, this will have the effect of reducing their numbers and influence in Parliament.

Metaphors drawn from natural disasters pervade current political writing in Italy: we are said to be witnessing a tempest, an earthquake, an avalanche, a volcanic eruption. It is curious and troublesome that such language recurs, for if it is more than a journalistic cliché it suggests a one-sided, negative view of recent political events. The language of reconstruction seems less audible. There is indeed a mood of “civic depression.” Yet, notwithstanding its many and serious reasons for anxiety, Italy seems to have saved itself from the worst of Tangentopoli, and it is certainly not lacking in gifted and dedicated people who could make the Second Republic more efficient, more democratic, and more honest than the final years of the First.26

February 3, 1994

This Issue

March 3, 1994