Economic woes and new scandals
The labour 'reforms' have finally been pushed through parliament, but president Napolitano could be brought down over alleged Mafia contacts. Toby Abse reports
Giorgio Napolitano: Mafia negotiations?
The victory of New Democracy in the Greek general election seemed to bring at least a temporary measure of relief to the Italian stock exchange. However, on June 25 the Milan stock exchange went down by 4.02% and the following day the spread between Italian and German 10-year bonds rose to 469, with an interest rate of 6.15% (ie, back in the danger zone). This clearly indicates the temporary nature of the previous week’s rally and the continued nervousness of the markets. Italy’s domestic situation remains very turbulent and this will increase if prime minister Mario Monti fails to extract major concessions from the Germans at the Brussels EU summit on June 28-29.
The outcome of the brief Roman quadrilateral summit on June 22, attended by Monti, Mariano Rajoy, François Hollande and Angela Merkel, suggests that such concessions are increasingly unlikely; the whole tone of the gathering was set by Merkel’s rather discourteous insistence that the discussions begin promptly, without the original formal lunch that the hospitable Italians had so carefully planned, so that Merkel could leave early to attend the Germany-Greece football match in Poland - doubtless eagerly anticipating an opportunity to publicly display her glee at another Greek humiliation.
Silvio Berlusconi is widely believed to be planning to pull the plug on Monti’s government if he returns from Brussels empty-handed, preparing the way for an election in October. Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL) is itself in some disarray, since the former prime minister seems to be trying to reverse his earlier delegation of the party leadership to Angelino Alfano, toying with the idea of once more putting himself forward as leader of the PdL (or perhaps a new personal party). Alfano and most of the more pragmatic career politicians in the PdL are also rather concerned about Berlusconi’s repeated suggestions that Italy would be better off if it left the euro and returned to the lira.
However, the likely failure of any Monti-Hollande-Rajoy alliance to get Merkel and her hard-line northern European allies to back down would strengthen the hand of the reckless old man (who is anxious to obtain a sufficient force in the next parliament to stop any serious legal consequences flowing from his ongoing trials), and not those trying to transform the remnants of the PdL into a more mainstream, conventional, conservative party. Berlusconi’s comment that Germany “should get out of the euro, or others will do so” would have more, not less, popular resonance in such circumstances, especially in the context of the rabid Europhobia of Beppe Grillo’s populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S).
Earlier this week, Monti had been desperately trying to ensure that the labour market reform law - effectively destroying the protection offered by article 18 of the workers’ statute - completed its passage through the Italian parliament by June 27, before Monti goes to Brussels, and was quite prepared to use a succession of confidence votes to get it through (he finally succeeded on June 26). But it is increasingly unlikely that such belated compliance with the August 2011 demands of the European Central Bank at the expense of the Italian working class will be enough to placate such a fanatical partisan of austerity as Angela Merkel.
The wave of popular indignation about political corruption in general, and the misappropriation of state funding for political parties’ election expenses in particular, has boosted the fortunes of Grillo and his M5S. This has more or less forced the Senate, which generally defends its members from the magistrates, to lift the parliamentary immunity from arrest of Luigi Lusi, the former treasurer of the now defunct Margherita (Daisy). The majority of the members of this Christian Democratic party had fused with the former ‘official communist’ Democratici di Sinistra to form the Partito Democratico (PD) and Lusi was expelled from the PD some months ago. This followed his confession of at least partial guilt in the course of a judicial investigation into his alleged misappropriation of €25 million of party funds.
Lusi, who is now being held in Rome’s Rebibbia prison, had hoped that the Senate would opt for a secret vote on his arrest (a procedure which protects parliamentarians inclined to rally round their corrupt colleagues from the wrath of ordinary voters or hostile journalists), in which he assumed a majority would have voted to uphold his immunity. Instead he was thrown to the wolves by 155 votes to 13, with one abstention. Lusi’s best hope of avoiding being kept in jail for the many months preceding his own trial lies in successfully incriminating others, since the usual justifications for such preventive detention for non-violent offences revolve around possible tampering with physical evidence or attempts to persuade others to give false testimony.
Lusi claims that he was not a solitary fraudster acting for purely personal gain. Rather, he was acting in his official role of party treasurer in collusion with many leading figures in Margherita - which rather bizarrely continued to receive reimbursements from the state for electoral expenses years after its official dissolution in 2007. He alleges they had agreed to divert party funds for their mutual benefit, whether factional or personal, and has now made a detailed confession to that effect.
Grillo in particular is making a great deal of political capital from this affair, which is likely to finish off the largely discredited Francesco Rutelli, the former leader of Margherita. Rutelli’s constant changes of party allegiance - in chronological order, Radical, Green, Democrats, Margherita, PD and now the relatively insignificant centrist fragment, Alleanza per Italia (API) - have eroded the once substantial influence of a man who was mayor of Rome from 1994-2001, minister of culture and deputy prime minister under Romano Prodi in 2006-08 and unsuccessful prime ministerial candidate for the centre-left Olive Tree coalition in the 2001 general election. So Lusi’s imprisonment looks set to trigger further revelations involving not just the API under Rutelli, but prominent figures of the Christian Democratic wing of the ex-‘official communist’-dominated PD.
However, the most dramatic scandal of the last few days has impacted upon no less a figure than president Giorgio Napolitano himself. Napolitano, another prominent ex-member of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), has been linked to allegations of an attempt to interfere in a judicial investigation into what seem to have been clandestine negotiations between representatives of the Italian state and the Sicilian Mafia in 1992-93.
The revelations about these negotiations have led to particular public outrage, because they took place at a time when the Mafia was using massive bombs first to assassinate, on Sicilian soil, the two leading Palermo magistrates associated with the crackdown on the Mafia in 1992, and then for the far more indiscriminate terrorism against cultural institutions and random civilians in Milan, Florence and Rome in 1993.
Whilst some have tried to claim that tales of such negotiations are lurid fiction, it has to be noted that, after the mainland bombings of 1993, 441 mafiosi who had been subject to the harsh prison restrictions known as ‘regulation 41b’ were transferred to a normal prison regime. Giovanni Conso, the minister of justice at the time, claims he decided on this change “in solitude”, but suspicions remain that the government took a collective decision to capitulate to Mafia pressure.
There certainly seems to be a prima facie case that Loris D’Ambrosio, currently legal adviser to Napolitano and in 1992-93 a leading civil servant in the ministry of justice, has given some measure of assistance to Nicola Mancino, the interior minister in 1992-94 and now under investigation in relation to the alleged Mafia negotiations. Mancino’s phone was recently being tapped by the magistrates and as a result there can be no dispute that he and D’Ambrosio had frequent conversations relating to the current investigation, which seems, to say the least, unwise on the part of somebody like D’Ambrosio, who is advising a serving head of state in an official capacity.
In the initial stages, the allegations of misconduct centred around D’Ambrosio, and criticism of Napolitano arose from his decision to stand by his legal adviser and reject his offer of resignation. However, the whole scandal took on a far more serious character when it emerged that during the period when the magistrates had been tapping Mancino’s phone there had been two telephone conversations between Mancino and Napolitano himself.
Authoritative sources claim that the tapes have been destroyed and no transcriptions made. Nonetheless, the interception of the president’s phone calls has led to a very angry public outburst by Napolitano, denouncing the “campaign of insinuations and suspicions in relation to the president of the republic and his collaborators constructed on nothing”. Anna Maria Cancellieri, minister of the interior in Monti’s government, has claimed that the Quirinale, the official residence of the president, is “above all suspicion”. This attempt to “undermine the authority of the head of state” deserves “the greatest indignation”.
Amongst the major Italian political figures only Antonio Di Pietro, current leader of Italia dei Valori (IdV), has responded to the affair with any degree of rationality. He correctly pointed out: “The president of the republic ought to know full well that nobody, not even him, is above and outside the law. We take it that he supports the behaviour of his closest collaborators, who have attempted to interfere in an ongoing criminal investigation into the negotiations between the Mafia and the state.”
By contrast, Napolitano fans - especially the staff of La Repubblica - have indulged in the most crass conspiracy theories, according to which the whole episode is somehow an attempt by Berlusconi to discredit Napolitano and Monti, precipitate an early general election and perhaps get himself elected to the Quirinale in place of his hapless victim. Given the frequent allegations by Mafia supergrasses about the alleged role of Berlusconi and his right-hand man, Marcello Dell’Utri, in the more obscure aspects of 1992-93, it seems highly improbable that Berlusconi would have any desire whatsoever to return the media spotlight to anything remotely connected with the alleged state-Mafia negotiations. That applies even more to the mainland bombings of 1993, whose uncanny temporal coincidence with Berlusconi’s decision to ‘take the field’ in Italian politics has been the subject of so much, doubtless unfounded, speculation.
The only political force that would really gain from Napolitano being undermined by a scandal centring on the negotiations with the Mafia in 1992-93 would be Beppe Grillo and M5S, not Silvio Berlusconi and the PdL. And there is absolutely no reason to assume that the Genovese comic is closely aligned with the Palermo magistrates, the secret services or anybody else capable of leaking the existence of the Napolitano-Mancino telephone conversations to the press.
1 . The Guardian June 25.
2 . Many senators were too cowardly to attend the session and make the stark choice between standing by their colleague in the face of public opprobrium and voting to condemn somebody for behaviour not so far removed from their own.
3 . The Mafia chiefs can usually continue to communicate with their followers on the outside and even give instructions to commit new crimes when held under normal conditions of imprisonment. Regulation 41b put a stop to this.
4 . La Repubblica June 22.
5 . Corriere della Sera June 22.
6 . La Repubblica June 22.
7 See, for example, the June 22 editorial and article by Claudio Tito, which expounds the self-justificatory and apparently paranoid line of Napolitano and his close collaborators, rather than attempting a balanced discussion of the president’s own entirely voluntary actions. The president is not some private citizen subjected to unexpected, random phone calls on the spur of the moment, without dedicated operators employed to filter out unwelcome or inappropriate callers. Napolitano did not have to answer Mancino’s first call, let alone have a second conversation with him.
8 . Whilst there are numerous versions of this argument, the best English account can be found in John Follain’s Vendetta: the Mafia, Judge Falcone and the quest for justice (London 2012). According to one supergrass, at a meeting with three of those involved in an assassination, Salvatore Riina, the overall head of the Mafia in 1992, said: “… we can sleep easy. I’ve got Dell’Utri and Berlusconi in hand. And that’s a good thing for all of Cosa Nostra … Because these people are the ones who will do good for us. We have to cultivate them; we have to assist them today and even more tomorrow” (p81). According to Follain, the Mafia sealed a pact in the summer of 1993 with Dell’Utri. To use his exact words, “Under the alleged deal, Cosa Nostra pledged to halt its wave of terror in exchange for an easing of the pressure from police and judiciary, fewer seizures of the society’s assets and fewer benefits for collaborators. After consulting Cosa Nostra bosses, [Mafia chief] Provenzano threw the organisation’s weight behind the new Forza Italia party led by media mogul Silvio Berlusconi” (p 236). Follain goes on to explain that in the autumn of 1993 there was an independent attempt to negotiate with Berlusconi. There were threats that “the massacres would continue” unless Berlusconi eased prison conditions for Mafiosi and tried to do something to reverse the outcome of a prominent trial (see p237).