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Fed-up Italians have crooks on the run Broad probe topples politicians after decades of corruption


ROME -- Throughout Italy today some people are scared and many are exhilarated. But most are furious.

Hardly a day seems to pass without a new revelation in the political corruption scandal that has shaken the country's entrenched establishment to its core.

Only yesterday, a fourth minister in the government of Prime Minister Giuliano Amato -- Agriculture Minister Gianni Fontana -- felt compelled to resign after learning he is wanted for questioning in what has become known as the scandal of "tangentopoli," or "bribe cities."

Mr. Fontana is hardly a rarity. Over 1,000 politicians and businessmen, including 150 members of Parliament, are being investigated. Many have been jailed. Other mandarins in each of the four parties of Italy's governing coalition are under suspicion, such figures of the postwar years as Bettino Craxi, the former prime minister and Socialist Party leader. Indictments loom.

There have been seven suicides connected with the spreading scandal involving widespread bribery and kickbacks to party officials, mainly by companies that do business with the state.

It is said that not a single untainted contract has been let by a state company for over a decade.

An estimated $110 billion is believed to have been misdirected in this way over the past 10 years.

Public fury, suppressed for decades in the face of unending corruption, is finally pouring out against the political parties and their leaders who have run the country since the end of World War II.

Italian voters will get an opportunity to support dramatic reforms in the political system in a referendum on April 18.

But in the meantime, their fury has found other instruments for satisfaction: the magistrates currently prosecuting those politicians and their cohorts at the top of Italy's major industrial combines, public and private -- clapping them in handcuffs and taking them off to a dark and dirty jail, shocking these men with their $50 haircuts and $1,000 suits into contrite confessions.

This has almost nothing to do with the Mafia. It is Italians making a judgment on the people who have ruled them for nearly half a century.

The exhilarated are drunk on the notion that a restorative revolution has come to this land. Revolution is the word they use. The country where things almost never changed is standing on the brink of change.

"There is a feeling of elation just beginning," says Arrigo Levi, former editor of La Stampa newspaper. "At long last, it is happening."

Think, he says: "The two countries in the industrial world with the most corruption are the two which have the least political change, Italy and Japan. Italy at least is trying to fight back."

One of the persistent myths of Western political lore is that of Italy's instability. What else would 52 governments in the past 48 years indicate?

Actually, the reverse is true. Political rigidity has brought Italy to this point. Those 52 governments were formed, reformed, and reformed again by the same parties, largely the same people operating in collaboration under a political ethic of bribery and payoff.

No release valve

As one observer put it, there was never any release valve here, no way to throw the rascals out and put in office new people less arrogant, less adept at the sly skills practiced by the Christian Democrats, Socialists and other non-Communist parties. The Communists never held national power, for people feared them, though they did well locally and exercised an immense negative influence, which was a kind of power in itself.

Italy's history since the end of World War II is thus one of a people persuaded time and again to accept the lesser of two evils. They did this until history did one of its unexpected pivots:

The Soviet Union collapsed and communism virtually died and with it any threat from the Italian Communist Party.

The lesser of the two evils then loomed as the paramount evil. Italians were left wondering whether they had not let democracy itself die by the means they had embraced to preserve it.

On an operatic scale

The word crisis springs quickly to Italian lips. "Italians invented grand opera," says Agostino Bono, who runs a religious news agency here. "Everything must be embellished."

But it would be hard to embellish further the rococo melodrama being played out here now. It proves, if anything, how political arrangements condition social and economic life for good or ill. Here, it was for the latter.

"In every democratic system a certain greasing of palms can be put up with as long as the garbage is picked up," says Mr. Bono.

"But why have a telephone system like this, a mail system as bad as this? Health services are particularly bad. People started asking why they have to put up with it now that the Communists are not there to worry about?"

Italians have been aware that the physical infrastructure all around them has been deteriorating for a long time, not to mention their competitiveness in international trade with products that have lost much of the -- and originality that once distinguished them.

"Italians travel a lot," said Mr. Levi. "North of the border, in Germany, France, they saw that things worked."

They knew the reason they didn't at home. For every lira that was paid illegally into the hands of the ruling parties and their agents was a lira that didn't go to assuring the mail was delivered and the trains arrived on time.

"The system had turned out to be extremely costly," says Sergio Romero, former Italian ambassador to NATO and the Soviet Union.

"The system encouraged work to be done that was not necessary for the country, projects that spread more and more money around. Public services were not attended to even as the country was getting richer."

The conventional wisdom is that the end of the Cold War, the collapse of communism, threw up this opportunity to escape the grip of the political parties. But it wasn't that alone. Most people interviewed think this was only one factor, that what has been reached in Italy is one of those rare moments when circumstances coalesce in a way that practically compels major change.

Disillusionment indeed became manifest after 1989 when voters, no longer worried about the Communists, began moving toward protest parties like the separatist Northern League and La Reta, an anti-Mafia party based in the south. This movement was a response to the growing disgust at the greed of the party hacks. But it also proved Italians' continuing faith in political solutions.

(People in this country are not required by law to vote. But they do. Turnouts in the 1950s and 1960s were always between 90 percent and 95 percent; they are now down to a mere 85 percent.)

Anger was boiling and building. It finally broke out last February, sprung by a routine case in Milan.

There, a businessman, Luca Magni, trying to get a contract to do the cleaning in a Milan nursing home, faced a demand from a minor Socialist Party official, Mario Chiesa, for a payoff of about $4,000 for the job.

Fed up, Mr. Magni went to the authorities. They wired him with a recorder and got Mr. Chiesa to implicate himself on tape. It was the beginning.

Before the Milan magistrate was finished, Mr. Chiesa had named many names, those of bribe-takers and bribe-payers. He revealed a vast pattern of kickbacks paid to the various political parties by construction companies, businessmen, anyone trying to do business with the government in and around Milan, one of Italy's richest cities.

The scandal opened like a gigantic boil. The Milan magistrates began dragging more and more politicians and businessmen into the cavernous Palace of Justice, sending some off to the dark cells of San Vittore prison. Two high Fiat executives were taken from their homes. This sort of thing had rarely been done before.

Revolution has a hero

Almost overnight the name of the magistrate who pricked the boil, Antonio Di Pietro, was on everybody's lips throughout Italy. The revolution had found its hero.

The current governing coalition, shocked that some of their own kind were being thrown in among thieves and prostitutes, tried to bring Mr. Di Pietro and his colleagues up short.

A package of reforms was put together. One would have decriminalized the act of acquiring funds illegally for political parties. Those found doing this were to pay back all they had gotten and leave public life.

The government, headed by Prime Minister Amato, a Socialist and so far not under investigation, also tried to lift the cases out of the hands of the Milan magistrates and give them to prefects of dubious judicial integrity.

In Italy, unlike in the United States, prosecutions originate in the judiciary, not the executive branch of government. The absence of investigations into political corruption keenly reflected the political leadership's influence over the judges.

"Chiesa told the judges, 'You will be stopped,' " says Mr. Levi.

Outcry was furious

But they weren't. The public outcry was so fierce and spontaneous that the Italian president, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, refused to sign the measure to bypass the magistrates.

The investigations go on. Almost every day more people at the top of Italy's political pyramid, and many midway down and lower, receive the dreaded "avvizo di garanzia," the notification they are under investigation.

That the political elite has so far been unable to stop the process that is decimating their number is proof to many observers of their increasing loss of authority. The parties that ran Italy for 48 years may not be finished, but the days when they had to give no account to those they governed are evidently over.

Mr. Levi believes Italy has outgrown its leaders and their political culture. And even without the popular determination to have a change, external conditions make kickbacks and bribery on a large scale no longer workable.

Among these pressures is the European Community's mandate that subsidies to state-run companies end. Thus, privatization looms for the state companies ENI (energy), ENEL (electricity), ANAS (road authority) and the others that make up 30 percent to 40 percent of the Italian economy. Most of the state graft was carried out at the state companies.

Referendum on April 18

Italians also are anticipating a major political reform to emerge from a referendum on April 18. One of its questions is whether to continue public financing of the political parties. It will be rejected, without doubt. Such is the mood.

Another proposal would begin the change from Italy's current system of proportional representation to one of majority representation, such as in the United States.

The hopes are it will lead to fewer parties and stronger government.

"Here the power of veto has always been much greater than the power of proposal," says Miguel Angel Virasoro, a physicist at the University of Rome. "No one can take a decision. Ever."

He says a new system might allow a government to emerge capable of ruling the country, a government stronger than the parties that constitute it. Italians think strong government would be good for Italy. It is what they want.

It would be disastrous, says Mr. Virasoro, if "this opinion of the people does not come out in the referendum, this feeling that they want a change."

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