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Italian Reform Needs More Than `Clean Hands'

ITALY'S political system, justly noted for its Byzantine complexity, has taken bizarre new twists and sent even experienced observers reeling.

The corruption scandals implicating the country's most prominent leaders have been interpreted as a "bloodless revolution," heralding the "Second Republic." Not only has the political class been discredited, but on April 18 a series of referenda are scheduled that seem certain to alter the electoral system by eliminating proportional representation.

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Many Italians say they believe that this change will decimate the old parties and eventually produce a new constitution. Yet while some reforms are needed, it is a mistake to tie them too closely to the current scandals.

Italians generally attribute the corruption probe's timing to the cold war's end. Because Italy had the West's largest Communist Party (PCI), the explanation goes, Italians had to tolerate corruption as a side effect of preventing a Communist takeover, which would have cost them their liberty. Since communism is no longer a threat, the authorities are now moving against corruption. According to this view, it is only the scale of the corruption, not its existence, that has surprised everyone.

Because of the cold war and the danger of a dictatorship if the PCI entered the government, the large number of votes received by the PCI could not be allowed to foster an alternation of power. The result: a "blocked democracy" in which the Christian Democrats (DC) and their partners controlled the government for 47 years. The DC even stymied the reform-minded Socialists when they joined the ruling coalition in the 1960s.

Kickbacks on a massive scale actually originated with the PCI. Moscow not only provided direct subsidies to the party, it also required Italian companies doing business with Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe to contribute a percentage of the proceeds to firms controlled by the PCI.

The Italian party used this income to finance its well-oiled political machine, to salt money away in illegal Swiss bank accounts, and to create a real estate empire. The PCI thus left a rich economic inheritance to its successor, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). Ironically, since neither PCI nor PDS participated in the ruling coalition, the ex-Communists so far have been less affected by the political fallout of the scandals, although their national "treasurer" and local administrators have been implicated and investigations continue.

The PCI's agenda and its ability to finance itself by taking kickbacks from firms doing business with the communist world provided the justification for non-Communist parties to seek kickbacks from companies seeking contracts from the vast public sector, which the governing coalition influenced. A campaign-financing law failed to break this cycle because of the small sums allocated to political activity.

Given this situation, this form of fundraising became the norm. Furthermore, Italian laws are frequently contradictory and never repealed, creating situations where it is obligatory to violate them to get anything done, both in the higher economic and political spheres and in ordinary life.

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Enrico Mattei, founder of the State hydrocarbon ENI conglomerate said that when he built the first natural-gas pipeline in the Po Valley he violated 4,000 laws. Given these circumstances, it seemed appropriate to reach an accommodation so that the lesser figures involved in breaking the campaign-financing laws would pay fines instead of going to jail. Prime Minister Giuliano Amato's attempt to do so failed because of the white-hot political atmosphere.

The question therefore arises: Is the highly politicized justice system able to resolve the issues raised by the scandal?

It seems strange that the most prominent political figures have been targeted through an instrument designed to protect their rights, the avviso di garanzia. This is notification that a person's name has come up during an investigation, allowing that person to obtain legal representation. Most of the politicians enmeshed in the scandals have not been indicted yet and won't be tried for years, but the press has already declared them all guilty, and they have been destroyed politically.

Add to this another factor: Italian magistrates habitually arrest people and keep them in prison until they "name names;" they arrest first and ask questions later in a process that never would be allowed in the United States. This tendency produces extraordinary numbers of names, a host of conspiracy theories, clamorous miscarriages of justice, little evidence, and few convictions.

For these reasons, the process that many Italians predict will change the political landscape should be separated as much as possible from the corruption scandals. Proportional representation was instituted after World War II to prevent one party from seizing control of the country and to allow the widest possible representation. For a country coming out of a Fascist dictatorship and threatened with a Communist one, it was a wise move. But the Italian system was subject to paralysis because it allowed to o much representation, which produced too many small parties capable of exploiting the delicate balance of power.

The object should be not to eliminate proportional representation, but to modify it to permit efficient decisionmaking. Furthermore, with the end of the cold war, the chances seem good for setting up a system of alternation in power that should diminish corruptive influences.

Operation "Clean Hands" should have nothing to do with post-cold-war political renovation. It allows unsavory movements such as the Lombard League and neo-Fascism - thanks to their exclusion from mainstream politics - to trumpet their "clean hands" in an attempt to make political hay. The involvement of the politicized and highly inefficient judicial system in the process can only further inflame opinions and cause more harm.

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