Italy: Purgatorio

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…

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