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

March 22, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent

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?"

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