Corruption Probe In Italy Overshadows Vote of Confidence

DESPITE receiving a vote of confidence from the Italian Parliament, Prime Minister Giuliano Amato remains the star performer in a delicate high-wire act. Just how long the government will survive remains in doubt - though, as Mr. Amato points out, no one has offered an alternative.

Amato's government is buffeted by dissent in its ranks and by popular disgust with politicians in general, following an ongoing investigation into decades of political corruption here.

The year-old probe, known as Operation Clean Hands, has already led to the resignations of two party leaders (Socialist Bettino Craxi and Republican Giorgio La Malfa) and has resulted in the arrest on corruption charges of a number of businessmen, including the No. 3 executive at the Fiat automaker.

On Saturday an estimated 100,000 union workers descended on Rome to press for a new economic policy, and the demonstration quickly turned into a call for Amato's resignation.

In response to the crisis, Amato has said the government will prepare laws on public contracts (the main issue in the bribery scandal) and on the public financing of political parties.

But this would only be a small step in the right direction, many critics say. Even former President Francesco Cossiga has called for a constituent assembly to re-draft the country's Constitution.

The small but growing clean-government Rete party also wants immediate parliamentary elections to give voters a chance to replace scores of deputies and senators tainted by the scandal.

"What credibility can these people here have?" asks Diego Novelli, a Rete parliament deputy and the Communist mayor of the northern industrial city of Turin from 1975-85. "Let's make a government that's not under investigation."

Meanwhile, a referendum has been scheduled for April 18 involving issues ranging from electoral reform of the Senate to the abolition of some lesser government ministries. The vote will be another barometer of public opinion.

People are taking political authority out of the hands of the politicians, says Stefano Ceccanti, a member of People for Reform, which is championing the referendum movement.

Testimony heard Saturday in the Clean Hands investigation threatens to involve the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS, or ex-Communist Party) in the scandal. The No. 2 man at the Ferruzzi agro-industrial group told judges he paid 621 million lira ($1 million) into a secret Swiss bank account in 1990 to the then-Communist Party, and that he would have paid an equal sum to the PDS last year had the Clean Hands investigation not rendered it imprudent. PDS leader Achille Occhetto denies the charges.

Amato's Cabinet shuffle followed the resignations of Health Minister Franco De Lorenzo and Finance Minister Giovanni Goria, each of whom had been under scrutiny. In the shuffle, some Christian Democrats (who with the Socialists, Social Democrats, and Liberals make up the ruling coalition) fell out over privatization. A minority of Amato's own Socialist Party gave only conditional support to the government, feeling that its usefulness was over in the current climate. This atmosphere led Amato to call for the confidence vote.

But Amato's victory was overshadowed by Mr. La Malfa's resignation, after receiving formal notice he was under investigation in connection with an alleged 50 million lira ($79,000) in kickbacks, purportedly used for illegal party financing. La Malfa had portrayed his as "the party of the honest" and was a key supporter of a broad Democratic Alliance on the political left.

Earlier in the week his close friend Giorgio Medri, a key Republican leader, was arrested on charges of taking 300 million lira ($474,000) in bribes for the party from the Enel state electric company.

"This is a moment when the regimes are changing," observes Mr. Novelli. "The only thing to do today is to be coherent in our opinions and firm in our determination, without asking for compromises, knowing that we have to build something. It's not enough to tear down."

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