Italy Comes Apart

March 05, 1993

At the heart of Italy's moral crisis is a form of corruption all too familiar in the United States: the private contractor's kickback for a contract from a public agency. As shell-shocked Italians are finding out daily, however, this is not a cancer on the system, as it is here. It is the system. It is what has governed since World War II, revived the economy, brought prosperity, kept the Communists out of power and provided continuity in public life.

For Italians, the question is whether the cure is worse than the disease. Italy is grinding to a halt. Three Cabinet ministers are out. One-fourth of the members of parliament are under suspicion. Almost no contracts are being awarded. Many local ++ governments have ceased to function. High executives of prestigious firms are under arrest. Late this week, the government is expected to dispense easy justice to avoid paralysis.

For Americans, the moral is what happens when corruption is tolerated in the interface between public and private business. The larger it gets, the more painful the extraction. For Europeans, the plummeting confidence in Italian institutions throws up new obstacles to European unity.

The old notion was that there was some corruption in the Christian Democratic Party and organized crime in the south. A small investigation a year ago of a kickback at an old people's home in Milan destroyed complacency. Most established political parties are implicated, including the Communists (now the Democratic Party of the Left). Corruption cases are proceeding in 21 cities. Three government ministers have resigned. The longtime boss of the Socialist Party, Bettino Craxi, faces 50 charges. Two high officials of the auto giant Fiat are under arrest. Three suspects have committed suicide. Prestigious reformer Giorgio La Malfa quit as head of the Republican Party under a cloud for party finances. The list is endless.

Socialist Prime Minister Giuliano Amato kept his shaky coalition alive in the most recentconfidence vote. Italians face a referendum in the spring on drastic electoral changes. A new semi-separatist party commands the most support in the prosperous north. Maverick Christian Democrats are making waves against the Mafia in the south. A few Milan magistrates are behind "Operation Clean Hand" and probably enjoy more public support than the entire political structure. Some of them propose massive amnesties in return for confessions and departures from public life.

It is being called a revolution, a vendetta and a war crimes trial, but the crusade most resembles the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. With the Communist threat gone, the public saw no further need to tolerate a corrupt bulwark against communism. The political class was the last to find out; the hand in the till kept the ear from the ground. A stronger, more resilient Italy will emerge, but there are shocking times ahead.

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