Corruption Probe And Election Losses Rattle Italian Leaders

NEARLY a million Italians went to the polls in city government elections this week to say: "We've had it with politics as usual."

The parties promising radical change - the Northern League of Sen. Umberto Bossi, the neo-fascist Social Movement, the Communist Refoundation, and the anti-Mafia, clean-government Rete - received significant boosts in the Dec. 13-14 vote. Nearly 1 in 3 Italians voted for one of these ideologically diverse groups.

"There's a strong demand for cleanness, openness, and honesty," says Gaspare Nuccio, a Rete parliamentarian. "The people are tired of this rule of the [traditional] parties." All four parties in the current ruling coalition - the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, the Social Democrats, and the Liberals - lost votes.

Senator Bossi lost no time in calling for early national elections. The reason was clear. Opposition party leaders said the ruling coalition, which enjoys only a slim parliamentary majority, would be in the minority if national elections were held today.

The results are bound to provoke further demands for change within the ranks of the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties, which had already lost ground in national elections in April. They will also give renewed force to the heretofore unsuccessful efforts of left-leaning politicians to create a broad reform-oriented coalition to combat the Northern League's fast-growing popularity.

But while the results speak loud and clear about popular dissatisfaction with the inefficiency and corruption surfacing in the current government, the future is cloudy. Voters in the northern city of Mantova, who voted earlier this year in city elections, will have to return to the polls. The Northern League won a plurality there but was unable to find parties willing to join it in a coalition. Commentators predict similar results in many cities after this election, because of the fragmentation of the vo te among a dozen or more parties.

The Christian Democratic Party, which for years garnered 30 to 40 percent nationally and led most of the country's coalition governments, sank to 24 percent in these elections. Reform-minded party member Mario Segni told supporters earlier this year that much of his party's leadership stood "discredited" before the people because of what he called its failed policies.

Mr. Segni has appeared on the verge of leaving (or being ousted from) the Christian Democrats for months now. In a test of strength, Segni put forward his own slate of candidates in this week's city elections in Fiumicino, a city near Rome. His "Alliance for Progress" grouped candidates from the Democratic Party of the Left (the former Communist Party), the Republicans, the Greens, and his own People for Reform. Though he did not defeat the Christian Democratic slate, which won 28 percent, he did come in

second with 20 percent.

The Socialists are even worse off than the Christian Democrats. They dropped from 13.5 percent in the April elections to 9.9 percent. The results clearly mirror strong dissatisfaction with the implication of Socialists throughout the country in an ongoing bribery investigation, based in Milan.

The Socialists' showing will put greater pressure on party leader Bettino Craxi to resign. Justice Minister Claudio Martelli, a leading Socialist and one of the most prominent voices on the left for reform, has repeatedly called for Mr. Craxi to step aside, blaming the former prime minister for the party's problems. Craxi was formally notified Tuesday of being suspected of corruption and taking illegal contributions to party funds.

"The parties involved in the bribery scandal no longer have any legitimacy," Bossi said after the vote.

An unexpected result of the election was the transformation of the Rete from a southern party, led by former Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando, into a national party winning 4 percent of the vote, a stronger showing than either the long-established Liberal or Republican parties.

"The people are sending a message for change," says Mr. Nuccio. "The Rete's result is concrete testimony of this."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.