Italy’s New Leadership Splits Within Hours Over Scandal
A banker’s transition government created to promote political reform exploded in chaos within hours of its formation Thursday after Parliament failed to fully endorse the biggest bribery and corruption investigation in Italian history.
Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who took office Thursday morning at the head of Italy’s 52nd postwar government, lost four of his ministers by Thursday night, including the first members of the former Communist Party named to Cabinet seats since 1947.
Italy’s first Greens minister, who came on his motorbike to the swearing-in ceremony to promise a new deal for the Italian environment, also quit in disgust, and it was not clear early today if the Ciampi government could endure.
Tumult flared in the aftermath of votes in the Chamber of Deputies that lifted parliamentary immunity against former Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi on only two of six bribery, corruption and illegal party financing charges.
Overturning the recommendation of a committee of deputies to proceed on all six charges, the unexpected vote brought pandemonium to the floor of the lower house. Ushers had to stop opposition legislators from attacking Socialists and their Christian Democratic allies, Craxi’s apparent supporters in the secret votes.
Amid a consensus that the two counts would not allow magistrates to fully investigate allegations against Craxi, angry crowds formed outside Parliament in Rome and the main courthouse in Milan.
“I thought this government would do something. Now I’m ready for insurrection,” said a woman in Milan. “Shame, shame! Out, out!” chanted the Roman protesters.
Italian newspapers abandoned all pretense of objectivity in banner headlines this morning. “Shame, Craxi Acquitted,” said Rome’s La Repubblica. “The Chamber Saves Craxi,” said Corriere della Sera of Milan. “A Slap in the Face to the Italians,” said Il Tempo of Rome. “The Thieves Have Won,” said Milan’s L’Indipendente.
“This is a disconcerting decision. It seems that the votes were aimed at withdrawing an ex-minister from the possibility of conviction. Parliament is invading the judicial sphere,” said Francesco Severio Borrelli, chief of the magistrates in Milan for whom Craxi and the Socialists have become prime targets of their 14-month investigation.
The former Communist Party, included by Ciampi in his government to give it as broad a base as possible, rebelled within minutes of the vote.
“The vote on the immunity changes the terms of the political situation. This is about a scandalous vote that is the responsibility primarily of the parties of the old government,” said Achille Occhetto, head of the Democratic Party of the Left, as the former Communists are now known.
A government communique late Thursday following the resignations said that Ciampi, the 72-year-old, apolitical president of the Bank of Italy, still intends to ask for a confidence vote in Parliament.
There were grave doubts, however, about the survivability of a government that was born broader in scope and intent than any since World War II but foundered almost immediately on the issue of institutionalized corruption that has consumed Italy in recent months.
As Ciampi scrambled to pick up the pieces, there were demands from half a dozen of the smaller parties, joined by the former Communists, for the dissolution of Parliament and immediate elections.
Chosen as an antidote to feuding and disgraced politicians, Ciampi assembled his government to replace Prime Minister Giuliano Amato in a record two days, bypassing formal consultations with political parties that have dominated the national spotlight in comfort, arrogance and corruption for nearly half a century.
Assuming the premiership at a moment of overwhelming public disgust with politicians and their works, the grave and gray Ciampi, a classicist turned economist, brought a clear vision to office with him.
“The first priority for the Parliament and the government is to attend to electoral reform,” Ciampi said after his 25 ministers took their oaths Thursday. “The referendum has made the process of change irreversible.”
The April 18-19 referendum scrapped a system of proportional representation for three-quarters of the seats in the Italian Senate. Parliament must now extend that reform to the lower house, instituting a system like that of the United States, where candidates getting the most votes are seated.
Since World War II, Italians have voted not for individual candidates but for party lists, often on the basis of which party would hand out the most favors and jobs. Now, in the midst of a monumental corruption scandal that has already ensnared about 2,600 business leaders and public officials, reformers are in full cry.
In the past year, every major political party has been tarred by the scandal: suitcases full of cash bribes, secret foreign bank accounts, villas, yachts and designer clothes funded by bribes and taxpayers’ money.
Ciampi is the antithesis of scarred political veterans like Craxi. He is, literally, a man without a party, having spent his entire career inside the Bank of Italy, which he has headed since 1979. There, against all odds, he engineered the independence of monetary policy from political intrigue.
In assembling his Cabinet, Ciampi was forced to borrow from the multi-party coalition tradition that has been the basis of every government since the fall of fascism and is the particular target of reformers now. Direct elections, they believe, would produce stronger, more accountable and more honest government in Italy.