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Dangerous days in Italy

It’s been an odd week for the “Il Cavaliere”, as Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, is known. In a single day, a key group of top judges attacked his government whilst Italy’s highest court approved racist measures against Roma gypsies.

On Tuesday, Italy’s Superior Council of Magistrates voted 21-2 to denounce legislation which, if passed, would give Berlusconi immunity from prosecution. Berlusconi’s cabinet has approved the legislation and it could be agreed by the Italian parliament by the end of this month.

Antonio Di Pietro, the most respected former anti-corruption magistrate and leader of the opposition Italy of Values party, accused the government of seeking to "destroy the trial system to save only one person” and insisted that Berlusconi should stand trial. Berlusconi has retaliated with a denunciation of what he termed "left-wing" magistrates, calling them a "cancerous growth" in Italian democracy. He is trying to evade prosecution for allegedly arranging a £300,000 bribe to David Mills, estranged husband of New Labour’s Olympics minister Tessa Mills, in return for misleading evidence in earlier corruption trials in the 1990s.

While magistrates in Rome denounced the prime minister’s attempts to evade prosecution, the country’s highest appeal court, the Court of Cassation, ruled that it was acceptable to discriminate against the Roma on the grounds that they were thieves. The ruling follows an announcement by interior minister Roberto Maroni, that all Roma – many of whom are Italian citizens - including children, were to be finger printed.

Leaders of Italy’s Jewish community, among others, have protested at this blatant racism, with its echoes of the past. They pointedly referred to Mussolini’s fascist regime which in its last days helped organise the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps. Berlusconi, of course, works closely with the Mussolini’s political heirs. The neo-Fascist National Alliance Party leader, Gianfranco Fini, president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, admires Mussolini as “the greatest Italian statesman of the 20th century”. The National Alliance party is Berlusconi’s main ally in Italy’s ruling People of Freedom coalition. The Northern League, another partner in the government, is also from the ultra-right.

In reality Berlusconi, despite his third election victory, is not even control of his own football club, let alone the southern half of Italy and the island of Sicily. Milan football club fans, the Tifosi, are plotting to overthrow Berlusconi’s ownership of their club. And there is the still-unresolved rubbish crisis in Naples and its surrounding area, Campania. This has raged since December, when dumps overflowed and residents banded together to prevent dangerous incineration near their homes. According to the Italian environmental group Legambiente, illegal dumping in the south of Italy would form a mountain weighing 14 million tonnes if it were collected in one place.

Berlusconi claimed this week the problem will be resolved by the end of July. But the heaps of rotting rubbish are a potent symbol of his inability to tackle any major problem facing the country. And, the rubbish crisis in Campania is much more than municipal mismanagement. It is the visible sign of a secret Italy which neither Berlusconi nor any politician in Rome or Milan controls. The Neapolitan Mafia, the Camorra, according to journalist Robert Saviano, became European leaders in waste disposal in the late 1990s.

In his book, Gomorrah, Italy’s other Mafia, Saviano documents how powerful Camorra clans have seamlessly merged with capitalist globalisation. The Camorra controls contraband goods and pirated goods passing through the port of Naples, in particular shoes, handbags and clothing from China, not to mention drugs and money lending and laundering. Its tentacles reach as far as US, Canada, Brazil, the Canary Islands and Australia.

Last Sunday’s Observer remarked that Berlusconi’s re-election showed the “paradox of democracy” – that “nations get the leaders they deserve”. But surely Italy’s predicament shows more sharply than most that the empty parliamentary charades are the foam on the surface, indicating a deep crisis and instability within the heart of the state as a whole.

As the political shenanigans continue, the Italian economy is plunging into recession, brutally exposed by the global credit crunch and there is nothing Berlusconi’s government can do about it. The state-organised attacks on the Roma are a sinister indication that as the parliamentary system fails to get a grip, the iron fist of Italy’s fascist past is rearing its ugly head once more .

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary
3 July 2008

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