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Premier Is Held Above Law, and Italy Rages

Decision to protect a corruption-linked politician places reform in peril, and spurs resignations in brand new coalition government

ITALY'S political crisis deepened over the weekend, following the surprise refusal by Parliament to allow investigating magistrates to try former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi on corruption charges.

The vote on Mr. Craxi, whom the magistrates describe as a central figure in the country's ongoing bribery and corruption scandal, weakened the new government of Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, placed a cloud over the magistrates' future investigations, outraged the Italian public, and spawned a series of important political moves, including protests against parliamentarians' immunity from prosecution.

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President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, in an address during May 1 workers' celebrations, asked for approval to reform the electoral process of Parliament along the lines of the British system before the end of summer. Early elections, sought by opposition parties following the Craxi vote, would not be possible before then, he added, because a vote under the old system would betray the desire that Italians had expressed for such reform in a referendum last month.

In his announcement, the president tacitly embraced the electoral law proposed in the wake of the Craxi vote by parliamentarian Mario Segni, the champion of the referendum movement, which would do exactly what Mr. Scalfaro proposes.

"This is the only possible solution for the future," says Rocco Buttiglione, a reform-minded member of the Christian Democratic Party's 15-member managing board. "It's the task for the new government and this means that the new government should not last too long - for three or four months, the time needed to approve these new laws."

Further delay, he warns, could allow politicians bound to patronage and corruption to devise new strategies against reform.

Parliamentarians from the outgoing four-party coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists, Social Democrats, and Liberals are believed to have voted heavily in Craxi's favor in the secret electronic balloting April 29.

On grounds that Craxi was being politically persecuted, the parliamentarians denied the judges the right to conduct searches for financial records in Rome, including at Craxi's home; to investigate charges of "aggravated and continued corruption" in Milan; to probe the alleged receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars of illicit funds; and to learn more about a further episode of corruption.

The parliament, however, approved investigations of the violation of the law on party financing (which Craxi admits) and a lesser case of corruption in Rome.

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The vote threatens to render fruitless more than a year of work done by the Operation Clean Hands judges in Milan, who spoke of contesting the decision in the Constitutional Court.

Following the Craxi vote, Mr. Ciampi's government, sworn in just hours before, lost all hope of broadening its support beyond the old coalition partners. The Democratic Party of the Left (the PDS or ex-Communists), the Republican Party, and the Greens, which had all been considering supporting the government, immediately reentered the opposition. Three PDS ministers and a Green minister resigned after less than a day in office.

Italians joined in demonstrations throughout the country on April 30 and May 1 and inundated politicians and the news media with phone calls, faxes, and telegrams expressing their anger.

"I think it's the only thing we can do," says university student Camilla Ceredini, who adds she was shocked by Parliament's decision on Craxi. "It's the last thing I expected."

Under the pressure of popular outrage, a range of political parties and union leaders called for modification or abolition of the constitutional provision of parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Current rules provide for a trial of a parliamentarian only if his colleagues approve lifting his immunity. Even then, he can only be tried in the specific judicial investigation at hand.

Scalfaro, in his May 1 address, said immunity must be reviewed. Politicians had abused the system, he said, making it a form of privilege and discrimination, and thereby calling into question the equality of all citizens under the law. "This is intolerable," he said.

The Green Party has called for a popular protest in front of the Chamber of Deputies tomorrow.

Socialist Party leader Giorgio Benvenuto, at a meeting of the party's leadership tomorrow, is expected to propose the party change its name and to invite Socialists under investigation to leave the party - possibly including Craxi himself.

Christian Democrat leader Mino Martinazzoli condemned the Craxi vote as a "mistake" and came close to resigning, so depressed was he over its impact on his cautious efforts to renew and reform his own party.

"The majority of the deputies must have known that a vote for Craxi was a vote against Martinazzoli," Mr. Buttiglione says. "I hope he draws the right conclusions from this.... Either he resigns or he takes a very strong course of action ... much stronger than up to now."

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