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The face of revolution

Domenico Pacitti talks to Antonio Di Pietro

Senator Antonio Di Pietro, commonly hailed as the man who changed the face of Italian politics, ironically feels that his own face is about as welcome in the Italian parliament these days as, in the words of an Italian saying, holy water to the devil.

His uncompromising efforts to introduce legal and moral rigour into Italian political and public life are at times suggestive of a bizarre attempt to erect a steel beam in a doll’s house. Yet Di Pietro remains optimistic of success. It is conflicting interests and the systematic distortion of the truth by the Italian media that are the chief obstacles that stand in his way.

Di Pietro rose to fame in the early 90s as the dominant member of a team of Milan magistrates whose investigations revealed that Italy’s political parties had been illegally obtaining financial support from industry on a vast scale. Operation Clean Hands, as it became known, resulted in 2,565 accusations of corruption, extortion and tax fraud and led to an unprecedented political upheaval.

It directly involved many of the country’s leading political figures, including the ill-fated former socialist premier Bettino Craxi, who died in exile in Tunisia, and the more fortunate media magnate leader of the centre-right alliance, Silvio Berlusconi, currently expected to gain power in the forthcoming government elections.

Di Pietro was popularly proclaimed a national hero, the symbol of a long-awaited revolution which was delegitimising an entire political class. But in 1995, before the revolution could be completed, the tide began to turn and Di Pietro found himself on the receiving end of no less than 27 criminal accusations. Although they later proved unfounded, he decided to hang up his gown in order to continue his revolution as a politician.

In 1998, Di Pietro founded his own "Italy of Values" party with the avowed aim of changing both the old faces in parliament and the old way of doing politics. Courted by left and right alliances, he opted for the left and was appointed public works minister in Romano Prodi’s government and elected senator with the backing of former premier Massimo D’Alema.

We meet outside the Italian parliament at Montecitorio in Rome, where Di Pietro is visibly moved by the spontaneous applause of passers-by. "I have the good fortune to have a face that is well-known to everyone in Italy," he says. "Yet support for me is so sharply divided that I am either loved or hated."

"I ask myself why there is so much bad feeling towards me. One of the worst accusations is that I put people in prison. But I was merely the judge and I simply applied the law. As a bricklayer I tried to build my walls straight, as a policeman I tried to arrest criminals, and as a judge I tried to bring people to trial when there was good reason to do so."

The Italian media, he complains, has been portraying Clean Hands as an unfortunate and unrepeatable anomaly created by the judiciary. Raising his voice emphatically, Di Pietro explains: "The anomaly was not the judicial investigation itself but the fact that there were politicians who were stealing. The point is not who discovered the thieves but the fact that the thieves were there in the first place. Those under investigation were falsely represented as victims and the judges as assassins, but no innocent person was imprisoned."

"Our media is notoriously successful at warping the truth. If everyone says Di Pietro has no hair then he becomes bald. If everyone says Clean Hands put innocent people in prison, then the general public will inevitably see Clean Hands in a poor light." Meanwhile, former president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro’s recent definition of Clean Hands as a real revolution that fortunately did not produce its full effects is, he feels, nothing short of scandalous.

The reason for this travesty of reality, he says, is that democracy in Italy has been attacked by a virus of conflicting interests that allows the same people – not just Berlusconi but also the centre-left – to be politicians and at the same time to be in control of information. Added to this, there are Italian MPs who have criminal cases against them in court and at the same time pass new laws in parliament.

Insensitivity to truth and justice and the repression of an independent moral and social conscience are sometimes held to be deeply rooted features of the Italian mentality. But Di Pietro’s strong sense of patriotism leads him to reject this. He holds that the Italian mentality is the victim of an anomaly by which media and politicians mould popular opinion by releasing the information they deem appropriate to obtain their ends. He feels that if this anomaly were corrected, Italians would perceive the truth and act accordingly.

"From both a parliamentary and a legal point of view, it is just not possible for a modern democracy to be without a law prohibiting conflicting interests in politicians. In Italy we have been unable to pass a transparent law on this because parliamentarians quite naturally have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo."

New legislation, says Di Pietro, is the way to rectify the situation. "I would like to see a law on conflicts of interests precluding candidates on grounds of inelegibility and incompatibility. Those who disseminate information or hold institutional positions, such as magistrates, police officials and beneficiaries of TV companies, would be inelegible to stand for election unless they give up all their interests at least six months in advance."

Incompatibility, on the other hand, would cover those positions an elected politician would no longer be allowed to hold. Under present legislation, there is nothing to prevent an entrepreneur who is at the same time a politician from passing laws in parliament on industry and commerce.

But it would be unimaginable for the Italian parliament, which is full of such cases of conflicting interests, to pass a law quite literally expelling themselves from parliament.

According to Di Pietro, only the electorate can now resolve the matter. How? Simply by voting out those parties which live in a conflict of interests and by voting in those who do not. His party’s motto is: in order to change politics the first thing you first have to do is to change the faces in politics, the people themselves. "In order to pack them all off home, simply do not vote for them – otherwise you’ll continue to have the same old faces," he insists.

Parliamentary isolation is the price he has paid for his work as a magistrate. "I live in an almost surreal situation. I meet thousands of people every day who say: "Bravo, Di Pietro – keep up the good work." Then I walk into parliament and no one so much as says good morning. I recently spoke in parliament about our current premier Amato’s past political history under Craxi and gave a detailed analysis based on documented fact. Again silence. No one said a word. At that point the parliament was clearly rejecting the truth. It wants pretence and hypocrisy.

"Just look at the alliances between politicians: Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, which wants to split up Italy, together with Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance, which wants to keep it united; or the conservative Catholics who have little in common with their communist allies. It is all about getting 51% of votes. Not surprisingly, little work ever gets done in such conditions since policies clash radically."

Di Pietro feels that while new laws are necessary, it is also true that many existing laws simply require to be swept aside. "No other European country has the jungle of laws that we have in Italy. They are excessive, useless, harmful, complicated and incomprehensible. Our legislators themselves are unfamiliar with them, our administrators do not apply them, bureaucrats fail to check them and citizens do not observe them."

Although new laws are necessary, he stresses, they are not sufficient. They must be complemented by an ethics of responsibility, an ethics of solidarity and, last but not least, an ethics of politics. He confirms that his party will continue to stand alone at elections: "As a third pole, we offer voters a genuine alternative to those powerful parties whose leading figures and programmes lack all credibility. We invite everyone who believes in promoting honest values to join us."

Judging from past performance and an impressive web site manifesto that employs daily bulletins and web vision to combat media distortion, Di Pietro undoubtedly possesses the necessary credentials to carry his plans through. What is less certain is whether Italy is ready for the revolution he has in mind.

Note: This interview first appeared in the February 2001 issue of World Parliamentarian (Brussels). A feature article based on the same interview appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on May 11 2001 titled Running on a clean-up ticket.