It all began on February 17, 1992 with the arrest of a man called Mario Chiesa. Chiesa was not only the director of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio, Milan’s largest old people’s home, but he was also a member of the Italian Socialist Party. A prosecutor in Milan, Antonio Di Pietro, ordered his arrest when Chiesa was caught in the act of pocketing a bribe. And so, the Mani pulite (‘clean hands’) investigations started.
Ultimately, they exposed the system of corruption that became known as Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’), through which Italian political parties were financed through bribes and kickbacks for lucrative state contracts. It rocked the Italian political world to its core and brought an end to the so-called First Republic, with the demise of the Christian Democratic and Socialist Parties as well as several of their smaller allies.
In the following two years, an estimated 4,525 people were jailed; 25,400 avvisi di garanzia, judicial notices of indictment, were issued; 30 prominent people committed suicide; and 1,069 politicians, including over two-thirds of the Italian Parliament, were involved in the scandal.
This system of financing political parties had existed virtually since the birth of the Republic in 1948 and had almost become normal practice. However, by the 1980s and early 1990s, it reached its peak of insatiable voracity. The man who became its symbol-and who was destroyed by it-was Bettino Craxi.
Born in Milan on February 24, 1934, Craxi joined the Socialist Party in 1957. First elected to Parliament in 1968, he became deputy leader of his party in 1970 and, finally, its leader in 1976. For the next 17 years, he was a dominant figure in Italian politics and the country’s first Socialist prime minister in two successive governments between 1983 and 1987. He helped the Socialists to gain up to 15 percent of the vote in the late 1980s, making them the nation’s third-largest party and giving them a key role within the governing centralist coalitions. Something very new to Italy, this tall, imposing figure had a somewhat arrogant style of governing the country and his party, which appealed to many who saw, in what was called his decisionismo, the hallmarks of a true statesman.
However, with Tangentopli, the end was near. Support, within the country and the press, for the Mani puliti Pool of magistrates, and especially Di Pietro, was high. In May 1992, when his brother-in-law, the Socialist mayor of Milan, received an avviso di garanzia, Craxi must have glimpsed the future. In an attempt to stem the tide, he spoke in Parliament in July 1992, challenging any of his colleagues who had never accepted an illegal payment to stand up. No one did.
Subsequently, in December 1992, Craxi also received an avviso di garanzia, the first of a series involving about $95 million in bribes. In January 1993, the Pool sought authorisation from the Chamber of Deputies to proceed against him. Three days later, he resigned as leader of his party. On April 29, amid cries of protest, Parliament refused to give the necessary authorisation. On that same afternoon, he was pelted with coins by the angry crowd that had gathered outside the Hotel Raphael, his headquarters in Rome. With arrest and conviction increasingly likely, on May 5, 1994, he escaped into voluntary exile in Hammamet, Tunisia. After he fled, he was tried twice in absentia and sentenced to a total of 27 years in prison, of which nine years and eight months were later upheld by appeal courts.
Suffering from solitude and bad health, on January 19, 2000, Craxi died of a heart attack at 65, an embittered man. He was buried in Tunisia after his widow and two children rejected an offer by the Italian government to hold a state funeral for him in Italy.
Yet, even today, eight years after his death and 15 years after Tangentopoli, Italians are still profoundly divided in their views about Craxi. Some consider him corrupt and a thief, responsible for the downfall of a party that had a long and honourable past. Others see him as a sacrificial lamb, sold out by a system not of his making alone and betrayed by many in his own party. Still others are nostalgic for his charismatic style that gave Italy an authoritative role on the international stage. Only history will be the final judge.