Fed up with corruption, Italians yearn for change

ROME — ROME -- The women in their pearls and sensible shoes, and the men in their plaid jackets were screaming like so many 1960s revolutionaries.

"The whole system is corrupt," yelled a Rome hotelier to the applause of her fellow merchants, who were protesting a new tax on their presumed rather than declared income. "Nothing works in Italy. It's the most degraded country of all."


Added an Asacona bookseller, "They've ruined our country." He did not need to specify that "they" were the country's leaders. "And Italians won't take it anymore."

For 45 years, the Italians did take it, even reveled in it. But not anymore. This is Italy's autumn of discontent, as the sweet life has suddenly turned sour.


Despite the patina of business executives strutting down Milan's Via Monte Napoleone or Rome's Via Condotti cooing "Ciao, bella" into their cellular phones, Italy is embroiled in an economic, political and moral crisis deeper and more dangerous than at any time since World War II.

The political system that has guided Italy through 53 postwar governments is alive in name only -- like a comatose suicide case on life support. Good riddance is the uncontested consensus. But it is not clear what will emerge in its place.

Hundreds of politicians are in jail, accused of accepting kickbacks from contractors on public projects or taking orders from the Mafia. Those who are left have enacted a austerity budget cutting into pensions, health care and their base of support.

As traditional political parties flounder about for a way to "renew" themselves, a rising party is led by a man Italian journalists compare to Benito Mussolini, in part because of Umberto Bossi's penchant for urging Italians to march on Rome, a slogan of the fascists in the 1920s.

And, for a variety of reasons, many Italians are marching on Rome -- from notorious tax dodgers to opponents of public television to neo-fascists in black shirts and white gloves chanting, "Duce, duce," in memory of Mussolini.

In retrospect, the crisis should not have come as a surprise. During the 1980s, Italy was awash in money freely spent to erase the chill of terrorism that stalked Italy in the 1970s, a decade referred to as the "Years of Lead."

But few Italians paid their fair share of taxes to support universal free health care or early retirement. Cheating the tax man became a badge of honor. The government cheerfully made up for the shortfall in tax revenues by borrowing from its citizens with high-interest bonds.

"It's like being on the Titanic," said a diplomat in Rome. "The Italians were wining and dining, and didn't see a big hole ahead that could swallow the whole ship."


Since World War II, Italian politics were designed to counter communism. Backing Christian Democrats meant saving Italy from atheistic communism. Christian Democrats and Socialists looked after their fiefdoms, turning a blind eye to rampant patronage, corruption and the Mafia.

Over the years, everything became political, so much so that Italians now speak of living not in a "democrazia," but in a "partitocrazia."

It is difficult to overstate how pervasive corruption became.

No Italian would think of approaching a government office to request service without a "recommendation" from a "friend." Italians, who have almost as many words for corruption as Eskimos do for snow, call the system "clientelismo."

To apply for a job at one of the many "para-state" industries, to get in line for an operation in a hospital, even to enroll a child in a public school, an Italian goes first to a political fixer.

Italians had quit thinking of basic rights as anything more than mere favors to be sought from the partitocrazia. Income taxes came to be considered, in the words of intellectual Lucio Carraciolo, a gift to the state that a citizen gives once or twice in a lifetime.


"There's just heavy corruption and light corruption," he said. "Everyone knew the system was corrupted. And everyone was a part of the system. So long as it worked, no one wanted to create problems. And you can't say it was inefficient."

While communism was a threat, Italians automatically voted for Christian Democrats. Now, without that overriding motivation, citizens of the world's sixth-largest industrialized country began asking what the Christian Democrats had done for them and where all their taxes were going when it can take 15 days to send a letter within Milan.

In the ideological vacuum, two men -- Antonio Di Pietro, a corruption-fighting prosecutor who has gained hero status, and Umberto Bossi, who heads a new party that seems to be on the verge of advocating secession for the north -- have come to symbolize the turmoil Italy finds itself in.

Mr. Di Pietro, a son of the south who now has his picture on T-shirts, reached rock-star status by investigating kickbacks on government projects in an operation called "Mani Pulite," or Clean Hands. Since the first politicians were arrested in February, Mani Pulite has spread from the big cities to remote provincial towns.

It has become clear that every public-works project in the country had kickbacks of up to 15 percent built into the bids. It is estimated that up to 10 percent of the $70 billion Italy spends each year for health goes for bribes, not even counting the billions that disappear for no apparent reason.

The indicted politicians have argued that they didn't take the money for their own pockets, but rather for their parties. Indeed, some parties can't pay their rent now that their share of kickbacks has been stemmed.


As if to underscore Mani Pulite, a group of judges sitting in Palermo issued a report last week that lifted another veil from the rotten core of the system.

They had spent seven months investigating the Mafia murder of Salvo Limo, a Christian Democrat who became a member of the European Parliament before he was killed in March. As point man between the Christian Democrats and the Sicilian mob, he arranged favors from the government and acquittals from the Supreme Court in exchange for votes.

Mafia members told the judges that Mr. Limo's chief contact was Giulio Andreotti, a fixture in Italy's revolving-door governments and seven times a prime minister. Mr. Andreotti says they were close, even "intense," friends, but that he never had a clue that Mr. Limo worked for the mob.

Mani Pulite and the Mafia revelations might not reverberate so much were it not for the new political party headed by Mr. Bossi, a charismatic rabble-rouser who had an eclectic career before hitting his stride with the politics of division.

His Northern League has become the fourth-largest party in Italy with powerfully simplistic campaign slogans including "Rome -- Thieves!" and "Parties -- Thieves!" Only his tone, not his message, is contested.

No one doubts that in local elections next month in several northern cities, the Northern League will get at least 40 percent of the vote. One of the planks in its platform is the idea, radical in Italy, of hiring professionals such as engineers to run city departments instead of hiring party hacks.


But when Mr. Bossi talks about "howling with our Kalashnikovs" or "marching on Rome," Italians wonder how much is metaphor and how much they should worry about.