By Catherine Brown
Last year the Italian government announced plans for extensive privatisation of government-owned industry. Now, the prime targets for privatisation are in the thick of a massive corruption scandal. All major state companies are involved, from the construction industry to power and electricity.
More than 1000 leading industrialists and politicians are under investigation; more than 100 have been arrested. Seven have committed suicide to avoid the courts. Magistrates talk of up to 60,000 people going through the courts if everybody involved in corruption is charged — a process that would take between six and 10 years.
The leaders of the Liberal Party, the Republican Party and the Socialist Party have all resigned since coming under investigation, as have the councils of Italy's four major cities — Rome, Naples, Turin and Milan (dubbed Tanagentopolis, or bribe city).
Industrial circles are alarmed at the resulting paralysis of state administration. "No decisions are being taken: everyone — from the local councils, through to the regional councils and ministries — is terrified of putting their signature to a document for fear of being accused of corruption", lamented the head of one building company.
A leading German industrialist said, "The Italian managers with whom I met to discuss [privatisation] are either in jail, disappear at night or have been fired. This would be inconceivable in Germany."
Workers in some companies earmarked for privatisation are exploiting the disarray. After Franco Ciatti, the chair of Nuovo Pignone Turbines, was arrested, the local workers' council demanded that all privatisation plans be halted. Protesting workers at the SME foods group occupied the Naples headquarters, preventing the company from removing documentation crucial to the sell-off.
The scandal began in Milan in February 1992, when a Socialist Party official was caught taking a kickback for a cleaning contract. This led to investigation of the practice of bribing political parties to secure contracts.
A year later, "Italy is now a country with its whole political elite and elite of private industry in jail", Luciana Castelina, a member of the European Parliament for the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) and editor of its paper, explained to Green Left Weekly.
"It is more or less the same corruption that exists in other countries. But in Italy there is a difference because
for half a century we had always the same parties in government. This led to a total identification of these personnel and parties with the state. Italy's ruling parties are use to seeing the state as under their own private ownership.
"This gives them a sense of being beyond control, of invulnerability. This is why the corruption was so prevalent."
Even the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS — successor of the Communist Party) has members under investigation. PDS leader Achille Occhetto stated, "At the judicial level everyone is equal before the law. But on the moral level one ought to make a distinction between those accused of having illegally financed politics and those who have enriched themselves in politics."
Only the PRC, the fascist MSI, the Northern League and la Rete (the Network, an anti-corruption movement) have not been implicated in the scandal.
The Northern League is hoping to be the big winner from the political crisis. Umberto Bossi, its leader, warned, "We'll occupy the squares, we'll take over Milan, and we'll make sure the magistrates go on — but that is not enough. The only courtroom for this people is the ballot box."
In local elections in the north last December, the Northern League increased its vote to just over 30%. It is hoping to increase it yet again in coming council elections. Bossi hopes to win mayor of Milan in June elections.
"The leagues are a populist protest — racist, narrow-minded, localist against the central state — 'we want to take care of our own interests, our own village or our own town, and we don't care about the rest'", explained Castelina. "It is an openly reactionary movement."
In Castelina's opinion, the growth of the Northern League was initially encouraged by the ruling class, which recognised that the traditional parties — the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party — were in crisis. The ruling class supported the first moves against corruption to facilitate their shift in support to the leagues.
"I now think the process is out of their hands. The judges started by prosecuting politicians who had been in government and were able to do that because of the climate encouraged by the ruling class. The judges then went further and started arresting representatives of finance and industry. At that moment the ruling class got scared. Now the situation is out of control, and nobody knows who will be next.
"The Italian situation is both specific and at the same time reflective of the undergoing crisis of identity, in all
European countries, of different political parties. There is a restructuring of political life combined with a deep economic crisis and high unemployment."
The scandal has been used by the Amato government to push its electoral reforms, to be voted on in a referendum on April 18. The changes would mean a limited introduction of "first past the post" voting, with a view to a future more extensive application.
"We are urging people to vote 'no'", says Castelina. "The referendum intends to introduce the British system, which everyone knows prevents minorities from getting into parliament, which prevents the renewal of politics.
"New things start by being small, and if you prevent small parties from getting into parliament, you're paralysing political life."
There is a growing resistance. Workers' councils have emerged as a de facto leadership in the union movement. The union bureaucracy has moved to the right, failing to lead any resistance to the government's savage attacks on the health system, pensions and the whole welfare system.
Over the last six months there have been a number of regional 24-hour general strikes and huge rallies against the government's attacks. Early this month "there was an extraordinary rally in Rome of 300,000 workers led by the workers' councils". This was particularly significant because traditionally the workers' councils organise at a local, not national, level.
A week later more than 50,00 women protested on International Women's Day. The march was organised by the three main union federations. The women marched behind the banner "We are not corrupt. We want to govern."
The Greens are split over the question of government and electoral law, says Castelina. This was reflected in the poor results of the Greens in the last elections (2%). The Greens are also divided over the Maastricht Treaty. "Some Greens", claims Castelina, "are taken in by the idea that they should be part of the government".
The left wing of the Greens has the support of around 40% of the party. It works with the PRC and was involved in the Rome demonstration.
Is there a prospect of an alliance between the PRC, la Rete and left Greens? "Now we don't need an electoral alliance, but if there are changes to the electoral system, at this point we will have to consider an alliance."