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Amid Italy's Political Upheaval, City of Naples Starts From Scratch

Their government dissolved by Rome, residents wonder who can lead

FINDING out just what is going on in Naples today is easier said than done.

After bankruptcy and a failure of city services, the government of Italy's leading southern city was dissolved Aug. 6 by decree from Rome. Neapolitans will go to the polls in November to elect a new mayor.

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The fall of the government in Naples, a city long identified with the Camorra crime organization, comes as the accusations of investigating magistrates have involved politicians throughout Italy in scandals ranging from kickbacks by businessmen to collusion with organized crime.

But try to get the man or woman on the street here merely to talk about what's happening in their own city and you face a Neapolitan code of silence. The people of Naples remain clannish, with their own dialect that is unintelligible elsewhere in Italy.

An elderly man on Corso Umberto firmly clamps his mouth shut when asked what he thinks about the dissolving of the government. He walks silently away. A young woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store responds, "I don't think about politics. I just work, and that's it."

A gray-haired man sitting on the stoop in front of a store in the Montecalverio Quarter is more communicative. He and his two friends admit there is a crisis. One friend vanishes immediately. The man in the colorful short-sleeve shirt continues talking: Unemployment is high, pay is not high enough, living conditions are squalid - "go up there and see the misery," he says, pointing up the narrow, steep Via Emanuele de Deo. There's organized crime, there's a problem with drugs. His other friend, silent, ha s slipped away into the shadows.

The man praises the work of Italy's investigating magistrates (who have made charges against several prominent Neapolitan politicians, including former government ministers Antonio Gava, Paolo Cirino Pomicino, Vincenzo Scotti, and Francesco De Lorenzo). What Naples needs now, he says, is a strong leader.

"Do you remember Mussolini?" the man asks.

Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of dictator Benito Mussolini, has announced her willingness to be a candidate for the neo-Fascist Social Movement. What about the granddaughter? The man gives an enthusiastic thumbs up.

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Not far away, two young men are seated on Via Medina. What do they think of the situation in Naples?

"What do you think?," says one to the other, in jocular fashion. But no one speaks. The young man continues, still smiling, "Why don't you ask them?" He gestures to people waiting for a bus across the street.

Whatever Neapolitans think privately, the series of events that led to the dissolving of the city government was dramatic.

A fourth of the 80 city councilors were under judicial investigation. Often there were not enough present at sessions to constitute a quorum. Mayor Francesco Tagliamonte resigned earlier in the year because of the city's budget deficit, which stands at about 2 trillion lira ($1.2 billion).

Immediately before the city government was dissolved, a series of health crises broke out. Milk from the city dairy, which reached thousands of families, was contaminated with coliform. (The investigating magistrates suspect sabotage designed to encourage the dairy's privatization.) City-supplied water in some parts of the town contained streptococcus bacteria; in other parts of town, the water ran red with manganese.

And transportation problems abounded. The failure to renew a maintenance contract on the city's traffic lights made Naples traffic more chaotic than ever, as some lights were simply turned off and others blinked yellow.

"The dissolving of the government was very just," says Antonio Bassolino, the city's leading politician of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). "We'd already gone beyond any acceptable limits. You didn't know what you'd find when you woke up."

Mr. Bassolino, a possible PDS mayoral candidate, is working to bring together the center-left in an alliance for the coming election. He agrees with the man on Via Emanuele de Deo that the city needs a strong leader.

"We need a strong moral and political authority in Naples, because we have to put an end to this illegality, which is vast," he says.

Criminality is often quite open: No one walking through the city center can avoid merchants hawking contraband cigarettes or bootleg audio and video cassettes.

"We have a proverb here: 'The fish stinks from the head,' " says Bassolino in his office not far from the city's port.

Therefore, he argues, the way to destroy petty law-breaking is to begin by creating a new, clean Neapolitan political class that has nothing to do with the discredited politicians of the past.

"This new class must affirm immediately the value of law, the rights of the citizens," he says. It must create a true market economy - "one that's productive, honest, clean."

"What's needed in Naples is a revolutionary program," says Bassolino, "the revolution of the little things ... to give the people normal city services."

As yet, however, apart from Ms. Mussolini, there are no declared mayoral candidates.

Does the PDS have a candidate, Bassolini is asked.

He throws his head back and laughs heartily. The broad smile on his face suggests he relishes the indirectness of the question. But he does not answer.

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