WHAT is happening in Italy today is not just another Italian scandal.
More than at any time since World War II, people here are questioning the nature of their government - one that investigations confirm is characterized by pervasive bribery, too-powerful political parties, and a closed, familial atmosphere inimical to accountability.
"This is a crisis of the system, not a crisis in the system," says Gian Maria Fava, president of Ispes, a Rome-based political institute.
Prominent politicians and business people have been implicated in isolated corruption probes many times in the past 40 years, but the kickback and corruption scandal now unfolding has spread far beyond its origins in Milan to ensnare an unprecedented number of people.
The current investigations also coincide with deep-seated popular frustration over Italy's traditional political parties, prompting a more profound backlash. Italians used to overlook those parties' malfeasance, accepting the argument that coalition governments, even corrupt ones, were necessary to keep the communists out of power. But communism's collapse has nullified that theory, and Italians' tolerance for corruption is evaporating along with it.
Mr. Fava calls Tangentopoli, or Bribery City, "the highest point of the crisis."
Over the past year, more than 1,000 busines people and politicians have been arrested in the affair. Investigating magistrates have asked Parliament to lift the constitutional immunity from prosecution that shields more than 100 senators and deputies, including former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. Three ministers have quit Socialist Prime Minister Giuliano Amato's government under a cloud and a fourth left in protest against what he said were attempts to sweep the affair under the rug.
Christian Democrats and Socialists have collaborated for decades in Italy's coalition governments, and their parties are the most seriously compromised in the affair.
The take was vast. Italy's state hydrocarbons agency, ENI, paid kickbacks of 1.5 trillion lira ($932 million) from 1970 to 1981, money that was divided among the Christian Democrats (40 percent), the Socialists (40 percent), the Republicans (10 percent), and the Social Democrats (10 percent), according to testimony presented last month by ENI's financial director.
ANAS, the state road-building agency, required private contractors to pay kickbacks of 4 percent, which judges estimate amounted to $398 million over the years. At first, says Antonio Crespi, ANAS's former director-general, businessmen delivered the cash in overnight bags. But ANAS officials began to run out of room for all the empty suitcases accumulating in their offices, so they asked that bribes be delivered in easily destroyed paper or plastic shopping bags.
The daily revelations of kickbacks and other abuses, which come with the relentlessness of similar announcements in the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings, are heightening disgust with politicians.
The main reaction to the Tangentopoli scandal is " `We want change,' " says Nadio Delai of Rome's Censis think tank. "There's a climate against the ruling class ... against the parties and against the establishment."
TANGENTOPOLI is the result of the enormous power that Italy's political parties have wielded in the society, not merely in government but also in business, trade unions, health care, and entertainment.
At RAI, the state television system, for example, the first channel is the fiefdom of the Christian Democrats, the second of the Socialists, and the third of the Democratic Party of the Left (the ex-Communist Party). Now RAI's budgets are under investigation.
Even the $26 billion Italy handed out as foreign aid between 1979 and 1992 was filtered through the parties: Aid to Somalia was funneled through favored companies by the Socialists, to Mozambique by the then-Communist Party, and to Ethiopia by the Christian Democrats, investigators say.
Politics so saturates Italy's daily life, Italians say, that a person must have a "recommendation" from a politician or someone close to a politician to get any decent job, public or private. "The problem in Italy is simple: The parties have occupied every part of the civil state they could," Fava says.
This rule of the parties, known as the partitocrazia, developed in part as an effort to keep Western Europe's largest Communist Party out of the government by means of a strong, counterbalancing power structure.
With the demise of Communism in 1989, the system made less and less sense. Voters have increasingly abandoned the Christian Democrats and the Socialists in national and local elections held since last April, many in favor of newer groups such as the Northern League of Sen. Umberto Bossi.
At the same time, Italy's investigating magistrates have became bolder in taking on politicians. "Magistrates who were, let's say, `more prudent' five years ago are now opening closets they wouldn't have thought of opening before," says Pietro Barrera, vice-director of Rome's Center of Studies and Initiatives for the Reform of the State.
The case involving public funds to rebuild the south of Italy, struck by a devastating earthquake in 1980, is an example. Even though $31 billion has been spent on the region, some 15,000 families are still in temporary housing more than 12 years later.
Investigators have said for years that up to half of the funds ended up in the pockets of politicians, businessmen, and organized crime. This month a builder who is the brother of former Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita was arrested on charges related to the reconstruction.