Masonic 'scandal' raises concern for Italian democracy

Italy's democratic system of government may be older by a few years than those of the Iberian peninsula, but even its most stout supporters here periodically have grave doubts that it will endure.

In fact, after the euphoria of the postwar economic boom, from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s, thoughts of a pending coup d'etat -- in some form -- have come to many people.

The current scandal of the "Masonic plot" with its suggestion that Italy's "industrial-military complex" (to recall Eisenhower's warning to America) were all grouped in the same Masonic lodge, has revived the fear of an attempted coup.

Although many Italians, perhaps millions of them, might initially welcome a nondemocratic regime on the notion that it would restore order (those same people may dislike the frequent strikes in public transport more than they fear Italian terrorism), the majority of Italians want to go along with their somewhat frail democratic system.

When it comes to "participation" in democracy, the Italians are almost twice as good at it as are Americans. In last November's US presidential elections, only 53.9 percent of eligible Americans bothered to vote.

In all Italian elections of the last 35 years, the turnout at the polls has been between 80 and 90 percent. (One reason may be that the Italian polls are open all day Sunday and the following Monday morning.)

The Italian worker also takes his trade union activities seriously and does not see the union only as a guarantee for higher wages. The three main union federations have clear political labels, and even the Christian Democrat union is further to the left than the party. Any overt attempt to take over the country (it is assumed that it would come from the right wing), would be a signal for the unions to put their 8 million members out in the main squares of Italy. It is something that must give pause to any subversive plotters.

The resignation of Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani on May 26 has not caused panic in the piazzas -- or in the Milan stock exchange either. His was Italy's 40th government since World War II, the 38th since the country was declared a republic.

Normally, the fall of an Italian government is not in itself such a serious matter. All prime ministers have been Christian Democrats, and there are plenty more of those left. All governments for nearly 20 years have been coalitions of several parties, often including the left-wing Socialists. In fact, the first Christian Democrat-Socialist coalition -- said to have had President John F. Kennedy as godfather -- was considered then by Italian conservatives to have been a great risk, but the reins of power were still in the hands of the so-called Roman Catholic party.

This Masonic lodge scandal probably would not have been considered scandalous if news of its existance, and its elite membership (generals, politicians, industrialists, newspaper owners and editors, radio and TV opinionmakers), concerned instead a British or American lodge. Freemasonry is one of Britain's most successful inventions and exports, and it thrives today everywhere the Union Jack once waved or still waves. The first Italian lodge was founded in Florence (by a British nobleman) in 1733, and today there are about 20,000 Italian Masons. One can assume that 95 percent of them are doing nothing illicit.

The Propaganda-2 (P-2) lodge was a private affair of its Venerable Master Licio Gelli, a Tuscan textile industrialist. He collected in his lodge only the "people who count," but it would be wrong to assume that he was a Masonic Elsa Maxwell. There was a pattern in his choice of members, and even though they never held lodge meetings, and thus did not know each other, it is conceivable that if Mr. Gelli did assemble all his "brothers" (the total number is about 1, 700) in one place, he would have a power base from which to run, or to ruin, the country. But that is supposition. No one kno ws that he had any such ambition.

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