Italy Waits for Crisis to Develop into Disaster

WILLIAM PFAFF

April 02, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. Some Italian commentators have taken an ironic pleasure in the outcome of the regional and local elections that have just taken place in France. The Italians, often exhorted to reform their constitutional system on the presidential model of France's Fifth Republic, observe that France now has a president and government who have been repudiated by four-fifths of the electorate, yet are impossible to remove.

However, Italy's own plight is nearer tragedy than tragicomedy (or farce) in the French style. The Italians vote Sunday in legislative elections in which the issues include criminal domination of a part of Italy and of its political apparatus, and the threat of national break-up itself.

The last election in Italy, in 1990, saw a populist and separatist ''Lombardy League'' win a fifth of the vote in that richest of Italy's provinces. Polls today give the separatists as high as 30 percent support in Lombardy (and 10 percent nationally). Lombardy is more populous than Switzerland or Sweden, and its people ask themselves why they should remain shackled to the Mafia-ridden south of Italy, subsidizing it while the central government in Rome remains incapable of providing the nation as a whole with effective administration or a modern economic and social infrastructure.

The Italian national deficit now is proportionately twice that of the United States. An analyst of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro has drawn attention to the fact that in Italy's private, export-directed manufacturing sector, productivity augmented six times more rapidly between 1982 and 1990 than it did in the domestic sectors unexposed to foreign competition -- construction and domestic banking, insurance, commerce, services, etc.

In the same period, prices increased in the exporting sector by 79.1 percent and in the competition-shielded part of the domestic economy by 139.1 percent. Thus the difference in inflation between the two was 60 points -- which, as it happens, is almost exactly the difference between Italian national inflation in that period and the average of the G7 Group of industrial nations. Profits in the export sector dropped by 3 percent in the 1980s; in the sheltered domestic sector they rose by something like 26 percent.

Why should the progressive economic sector go on subsidizing the rest? Those Italians, mainly in the north, who compete brilliantly on European and world markets, feel the urge to cut themselves loose from the other Italy. That other Italy is politically identified with the Christian Democratic and Communist parties, who have dominated Italian politics, in a certain complicity, since World War II.

The Christian Democrats have uninterruptedly governed the country, alone or in coalitions which they led, since 1944. They owe this long reign chiefly to the Communists' domination of the opposition. Since it was unthinkable to the Italians themselves -- not to speak of those others, such as the Vatican and the United States, who have interested themselves in Italian affairs since the war -- that Catholic Italy should also be Communist, the Christian Democrats have unfailingly been returned to power.

But the result of this has been not only to inspire a deep cynicism at all levels of government but to corrupt the Christian Democrats themselves, whose origins lie in the resistance to Mussolini's Fascism and a certain moral vision of what society should become. Today the corruption is not only a matter of money and favors, normal enough, but of a criminal infiltration which, as one observer has said, has moved from the level of influencing politicians to attempting to ''subjugate'' them.

In mid-March Salvo Lima, the pro-consul in Sicily of Italy's Christian Democratic Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, was victim of a Mafia-style murder. This was widely interpreted as a Mafia message to the political class not to be over-clever. Mr. Lima is thought to have overestimated his room for maneuver as the Christian Democrats' power broker in Sicily. There have been two other recent murders of political figures.

Last week the existence of a supposed criminal ''destabilization plan'' directed against the government was made known by the Interior Ministry in Rome. President Cossiga earlier had suggested that the government might need exceptional powers to deal with the present crisis. The plan, however, generally has been taken as a fiction, meant to strengthen the Christian Democrats' position in the most difficult election they have faced in 40 years.

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