This article originally appeared in
     
22 January, 2008
   
  Italy: Problematic corruption charges

Charges against Italy's now former justice minister may not rouse a public
familiar with political scandal, but the controversy is shaking up parliament
and putting Prodi's majority at risk.



Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (22/01/08)

When Italian Minister Clemente Mastella resigned last week, political pundits wrote that
the scandal that implicated Mastella and his wife put Prime Minister Romano Prodi's
government yet again on the brink of collapse - a prediction that turned out to be true.

There weren't many who focused on the irony that it was the justice minister who was
under investigation for corruption related to kickbacks from a hospital system. Or that
his wife, Sandra Lonardo, a regional council chair from Campania, the area around
Naples, had been placed under house arrest on charges of extortion.

In Italy, corruption charges and convictions have become so common that they barely
resonate with a weary public.

This is the country where in 1994 then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was served a
warrant for his arrest on corruption charges while he was chairing a UN conference
on organized crime. Now as the opposition leader, Berlusconi has used legal
maneuvers to so far sidestep convictions on more than two dozen criminal charges.
There are five more active cases against him.

He's not alone. The Italian parliament includes some 25 individuals convicted of
offenses ranging from collaboration with the Mafia to tax evasion, and as many as
three dozen other lawmakers are either awaiting trial or under investigation. Even Prodi
- whose image is that of one of the cleaner politicians in Italy - was the subject of two
significant legal probes dating back to his days as the chief executive of IRI, then a
powerful state-run industrial holding company.

One EU report released in 2007 rated the Italian government the most corrupt among
the 15 countries that made up the EU before the expansion in 2004.

"It is safe to say that very few Italians have an expectation that their political leaders
will be scandal free," Maria Rossi, co-director of the Rome-based polling company
Opinioni, told ISN Security Watch. "In some cases, I believe people think that if a figure
is not under investigation, it means he's not effective simply because he hasn't
managed to make any powerful enemies."

There's no telling whether Mastella and his wife find themselves in their position
because they have powerful enemies. But he seems eager to become one himself.

Mastella's tiny Popolari-UDEUR party has three members in the Italian Senate. But with a
razor-thin, one-vote majority for Prodi's coalition, that's one more vote than Mastella
needs to make the coalition crumble.

Prodi, aware of that fact, at first refused to accept Mastella's resignation and then,
when forced to accept it, he indicated that he - Prodi - would hold the title of interim
Minister of Justice until Mastella could clear his name. But the approach did not work.
On 21 January, Mastella announced he was withdrawing Popolari-UDEUR's support for
the government.

"We are leaving the majority," Mastella declared according to news reports. "If there is
a vote of confidence, we will vote against it. Our experiment with this government is
over."

His withdrawal leaves Prodi scrambling to find at least two new allies among
opposition lawmakers or to convince Mastella to rethink his latest move in order to
prevent new elections. If it's the latter, the prime minister's argument will no doubt
include an offer of a more powerful portfolio for Mastella, the ex-minister under
investigation for corruption who suddenly holds the fate of the Italian government in his
hands.

Mastella was a controversial pick as justice minister when he was appointed, thanks to
his appearance as best man in the wedding of a well-known Mafia figure eight years
ago. And with the new charges against him and his wife, conventional wisdom would
dictate that he would become less influential, not more. But with Italy's flawed political
system that exaggerates the importance of fringe parties, little operates according to
conventional wisdom.

Of course, no one can say at this point whether the charges against Mastella and his
wife - like those of many fellow lawmakers under investigation - are based actual on
criminal activity or if they're trumped up accusations designed to cause political
wounds. But what is beyond doubt is that the aggressive and constant battle between
beleaguered lawmakers and a justice system too easily manipulated by individual
agendas does little more than weaken both sides.



Eric J. Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
 
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