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NEXT STEP : ITALY / TURNING POINT : Disgusted with corruption, voters look right and left for a political rebirth.

March 22, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — Maria Luisa Boccia, a rookie political candidate puzzling out campaign tactics in a smoky basement headquarters, symbolizes her expectant and perplexed country. Boccia knows where she wants to go, but isn't sure how to get there.

Italy heads this weekend into national elections marked by scandal, uncertainty and unlikely alliances, all punctuated by tumult enough for a temperamental diva.

But none of the tempest should obscure the significance of the balloting Sunday and Monday: the election marks a traumatic, ground-breaking search for political rebirth in a rich but leaderless country disgusted with its corrupt democracy.

A radically re-textured political fabric has divided into forces of the left, center and right, all gathering for a high-stakes leap into an unclear future.

Reformers once portrayed the election as a preface to a more open and honest "Second Republic," a renewed democracy with overhauled and modernized structures of government.

Now, it seems unlikely that the voting will produce either a clear-cut winner or the decisive, new-look rule that most Italians say they seek. Nonetheless, it will be pivotal.

"People are fed up; the political system has collapsed. If we can't restore legality and legitimacy to government, democracy itself is at risk," said Boccia, the first-time candidate who is running under the banner of a left-wing alliance.

A philosophy professor, Boccia, 48, is one of hundreds of newcomers vying for parliamentary seats in the two days of voting. They range from left-wing academics to technocrat engineers, doctors, businessmen and journalists. And they all promise a moral reawakening as the foundation for modern, post-ideological government in Italy.

Chief among the debuting candidates is self-professed anti-Communist crusader Silvio Berlusconi, one of the country's richest men and--suddenly--Italy's most popular politician.

He portrays himself as the one figure who could short-circuit chances of a leftist victory. The collapse of international communism had made Italy's left less threatening, and the subsequent decimation by scandal of its domestic opponents had elevated it to the position of clear election favorite until Berlusconi jumped into the race.

Five former prime ministers, several Cabinet ministers and numerous parliamentarians, along with some of the country's most prominent industrialists, have been scarred by a two-year investigation that has documented official corruption. More than 3,000 in all have been touched by the probe, which has uncovered millions of dollars of theft and illegal payments to politicians of virtually every party in every part of the country. The scandal has provoked national soul-searching and personal tragedy. Well-known Italian officials and business leaders were among almost a dozen who took their lives after being implicated in the scandal.

"Everyone knew, everyone is guilty," former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, himself under investigation, told a magistrate in Milan who inquired how deeply ran the rot.

Known to Italians as Tangentopoli, or "Kickback City," the expanding scandal centers on years of payoffs for public contracts, most of them made to political parties.

The Christian Democrats, so long esteemed by Italians, Washington and the Vatican alike as a bulwark against communism, stand foremost among the major parties painted with ignominy by judicial inquiry. Their principal allies in an unbroken skein of political power that has lasted nearly half a century also have been shamed, including Craxi's Socialist Party.

Now, seeking a break with the past, Italy has fashioned a new electoral system, scrapping proportional, vote-for-parties rules that have produced 52 weak, look-alike coalition governments since World War II, all of them forged in smoke-filled rooms far from public gaze.

Under the reforms, Italians will vote for individual candidates for the first time.

Three-quarters of 630 deputies and 315 senators will be elected in the winner-take-all, American style. Probably for the last time, the remaining seats will be distributed proportionally, allowing continued representation by sliver parties.

Also for the first time, candidates are campaigning, all'Americana , in factories, supermarkets, schools and neighborhood coffee bars to sell themselves and their programs.

"When I try to meet people outside a post office or a hospital, there is a great curiosity about who I am and what I think," said Boccia, a member of the renamed Italian Communist Party who is running against a centrist and a rightist in the working class San Giovanni district of Rome.

National issues preoccupying Italian voters parallel those in the rest of Europe: recession, employment and job security, social service, taxes, privatization, government debt and bureaucratic inefficiency.

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