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Scandal-Plagued Italy May Be Worth Saving--But Not Its Politicians or Parties : Corruption: Everyone in the Establishment seems to have been on the take. The public is outraged. How long will the revolution remain bloodless?

March 21, 1993|George Armstrong | George Armstrong is a regular contributor to the Economist.

ROME — Imagine President Bill Clinton's director of communications, four members of his Cabinet, the Speaker of the House, among others political leaders, having to resign because they were about to be indicted on criminal charges of financial irregularities. Imagine also that the chief executive officers of General Motors and General Electric are in jail because they refuse to cooperate in the investigation of the budding political-financial scandal. Add to that 100 members of Congress receiving notices that they, too, are under investigation.

Something like this nightmarish scenario is unfolding in Italy. The country, which became one in 1870, is coming unstuck. Its structures are trembling.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and his new justice minister, Giovanni Conso, hastily wrote an executive decree they hoped would be a "political solution" to the corruption scandal. Approved by the Amato Cabinet, made public on a weekend, the decree instantly outraged and galvanized Italians who still think their country is worth saving--but not necessarily all the political parties or their leaders.

The signature of President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro would have made the decree law. But perhaps sensing the building cyclone of opposition, he sent the "political solution" back, suggesting that it might not square with the Constitution. The decree is not dead, and probably will be resurrected in a more subtle form.

The Amato-Conso decree offered amnesty to the nearly 1,000 politicians, their henchmen and some of the country's industrial leaders who have been accused of demanding, accepting or giving kickbacks involving public-works projects. One estimate of the money value of the kickbacks and bribes to and by public servants is 300,000 billion lira--about $193 billion--so far. The decree was plainly a desperate attempt to stave off the collapse of the ancien regime --meaning the political parties, primarily the Christian Democrats and Socialists, that have run Italy for 45 years.

What the immediate future holds for Italy is uncertain. There's a long tradition here of muddling through a hellish political situation, but this time the nation's economical situation, equally infernal, offers no solace.

There is "talk" of some sort of a coup. A group of non-politicians, backed by some Italian industrialists and probably with the help of the military, would take power to give the country a breathing spell and a "wholesome, orderly, business-like management" for an interim period. It would be a time for sorting things out before national elections.

But there is already another group, highly visible and even more highly audible, whose members sit in Parliament and is, since last year, the No. 1 party in major parts of the northern region of Lombardy, of which Milan, the industrial and banking power of the entire peninsula, is the capital. The group, called the Lombard League, is led by Umberto Bossi. He wants Lombardy to be "independent," virtually an autonomous nation, as it was until the 19th Century's sentimental surge for unification. What Bossi seeks is closer to what Switzerland long has had--a system of cantons, confederated with the rest of mainland Italy, each with control over its tax revenue.

For 45 years, most of Lombardy's tax money has been poured into the poorer southern regions of the Italian boot. And the South grows poorer while the rest of the country grows richer. Much of the money designated for the South has been diverted into party coffers.

What has kept the coalition government in office for eight months is the current makeup of Parliament--it offers no viable alternative. Above all, if Amato's government falls, Parliament would "fall" with it, and new general elections are bound to reflect the country's utter disgust with the governing parties and its likely preference for someone like Bossi, together with the Green Party and the evergreen and feisty Radical Party. If revolution means turning things around, and upside down, that is what is happening to the political system.

Italy's first revolution, now in progress, so far has been bloodless, except for seven suicides and one fatal heart attack by the Socialist party's treasurer. But if all the political miscreants are allowed to stay in office, there could be some violence in the streets. Enough is already too much.

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