17 February 1992 was a busy day for Mario Chiesa, the manager of a old people’s hospice in Milan. His second appointment that day was with a cleaning company boss who wanted to win the hospice contract.
Police rushed in as part of a sting operation as Chiesa collected a £4,000 bribe. Chiesa asked to go to the toilet. Outside, police heard repeated flushing. They burst in and caught him stuffing his previous £9,000 bribe down the toilet.
One of the officers told him, “Now you’re really in the shit.”
Chiesa’s arrest triggered what became known as the “Tangentopoli” or “bribe city” scandal in Italy.
In the trials it was revealed that the major political parties had divided up contracts in the city between them.
Over the next two years all the main political parties collapsed following the conviction of senior politicians caught up in the scandal.
It looked like the wave of revulsion against this large-scale corruption might shift the country to the left. There were huge protests, and in Sicily an anti-Mafia campaigner was elected mayor of the capital, Palermo, with 70 percent of the vote.
Yet the main party of the Italian left, the Communists, had been thrown into crisis by the collapse of the Soviet Union a year before. Its dominant section reacted by moving to the right.
The party focused on electoral reform rather than leading popular anger, and even engaged in negotiations with Silvio Berlusconi, who was a leading businessman at the time, over reform to the electoral system.
As the protests faded, Berlusconi presented himself as a “new broom”. In 1994 he formed a coalition government with the Northern League – a racist party from the north that campaigned against migrants, people from southern Italy and corrupt politicians.
Just six months into Berlusconi’s first premiership it was revealed that he was also under investigation for corruption. To add to the humiliation, the story broke while he addressed a United Nations conference on organised crime.
Public anger was immense – people threw coins at politicians in disgust.
With the huge shock to the Italian political system all the parties began to talk about electoral reform, while MPs began to whine about “media lynch-mobs” and the risk of suicide.
Then in 1996 the centre-left was able to form a government for the first time in 50 years. Politics in Italy seemed to have turned a corner.
But the celebrations were shortlived. The new government then abandoned its own supporters by adopting widespread programme of privatisation and passing draconian anti-strike laws.
Berlusconi bounced back to power in 2001. His television channels—worthy of a dictatorship – played a vital role. He has dominated Italian politics since.
Two months ago Mario Chiesa bounced back too. Despite serving a five year prison sentence he was arrested again over a new bribe scandal.
Meanwhile, the discussions over constitutional reform ran into the sand.
Today Berlusconi is acting like an emperor of ancient Rome. This 72 year old man has been caught organising parties for teenage girls who hope to become candidates in his political party.
This tale warns us of two things. The first is not to get taken in by the promise of “constitutional reform”. But more importantly, there is a political battle over whether the left or the right benefits from the fall out of corruption scandals.