Italy's star anti-corruption campaigner wants to purge politics of big business. Unfortunately for him, a tycoon with a shady past is the likely next PM
On the eve of Italy's general election, Antonio Di Pietro, senator, law professor and founder-leader of the Italy of Values party, is urging the electorate to change the face of Italian politics by voting out the old guard.
Systematic media indoctrination and the rising number of established politicians with conflicting political and commercial interests are seriously impeding Italian democracy, Di Pietro says.
Just a few years ago, as a prosecuting magistrate in Milan, he brought about an upheaval in the 53-year history of the Italian republic when his investigations - later dubbed Operation Clean Hands - revealed that Italy's political parties were illegally obtaining financial support from industry on a vast scale.
He claims it caused "a major revolution that resulted in the near total replacement of our ruling political class".
Di Pietro, now 50, became widely recognised as a symbol marking the end of an old political era. His central role in raising 2,565 accusations of corruption, extortion and tax fraud against politicians and business administrators led to his being proclaimed a national hero.
But, in May 1995, less than four years after the inquiry was launched, amid death threats and criminal accusations raised against him - which later proved unfounded - Di Pietro disappointed many by resigning from the judiciary and entering politics.
"You could say that I resigned from the position of accuser in order to defend myself. Saving my honour was the only thing that really interested me. Sadly, we are now back to square one. This does not mean that Operation Clean Hands failed, but that Italian justice failed because the new political class was in the end more concerned with passing laws to ensure the impunity of those on trial than with bringing them to justice."
He believes that the most glaring case of conflicting interests is that of Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and leader of Italy's rightwing Freedom House alliance and favourite to gain power on May 13, despite condemnation by the international press - especially a cover story in The Economist , over which Berlusconi is threatening to sue - over criminal investigations into his business conduct and alleged links to Mafia killings.
Although the foreign reports have caused a furore among some sections of the Italian media, Di Pietro claims they are nothing new - all are contained in a recent book by his party's vice-chairman Elio Veltri - and that the uproar is politically motivated.
Popular opinion on Di Pietro is sharply divided. He is either loved or hated. "One of the worst accusations is that I put people in prison. But I was a judge and I 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 anomaly created by the judiciary. "The anomaly was not the judicial investigation but the fact that there were politicians who were stealing," he says. "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 they all say Clean Hands put innocent people in prison, then the general public will inevitably see Clean Hands in a poor light."
Di Pietro describes former president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro's definition of Clean Hands as a real revolution that was fortunately not wholly successful, as scandalous. He believes the reason for this depiction is that politicians - not just Berlusconi, but also the centre-left - often influence the media and a number of them face criminal investigation.
Di Pietro does not believe the mantra that Italians dislike truth and justice and have little moral or social conscience. He blames the media and politicians for moulding popular opinion and thinks there is no excuse for a modern democracy not to have conflict-of-interest legislation for politicians.
He wants the law to prevent leading public figures such as magistrates, and beneficiaries of TV companies from standing for election unless they give up their interests at least six months in advance.
Di Pietro adds that legislation would also be needed to stop, for example, entrepreneurs who are politicians from passing laws in parliament on industry and commerce.
The problem is that those who would pass that legislation have "a vested interest in maintaining the status quo," he says. It is therefore up to the electorate to vote for those parties that do not have vested interests.
He has found himself isolated in parliament as a result of his past reputation as a magistrate. "I live in a surreal situation. I meet thousands of people every day who say: 'Bravo, Di Pietro - keep up the good work', and then I walk into parliament and no one so much as offers a good morning."
Di Pietro feels that while new laws and an ethical imperative are necessary, many existing laws should be swept aside.
"No other European country has the jungle of laws that we have in Italy. They are excessive, harmful and incomprehensible. Our legislators are unfamiliar with them, our administrators do not apply them, bureaucrats fail to check them and citizens do not observe them."
Another problem, he says, is the alliance between different parties, for example, the Northern League, "which wants to split up Italy", and the National Alliance, "which wants to keep it united". "It is all about getting 51 per cent of the vote. Not surprisingly, little work ever gets done under such conditions because policies clash radically."
His party is standing alone in the election: "We offer voters a genuine alternative to those powerful parties whose leading figures and programmes lack credibility, and we invite everyone who believes in promoting honest values to join us."
The latest opinion polls place the Italy of Values movement, which he founded just three years ago, ahead of the other small parties with an encouraging 6 per cent of votes - which could gain him a modest presence in parliament and a platform from which to work. But he has been given only an outsider's chance of success in Milan, where he is also running for mayor.
Judging from past performance and an impressive website ( http:///www.antoniodipietro.org/ ) that employs daily bulletins and web vision to combat media distortion, Di Pietro appears to possess the credentials to carry his plans through. What is far less certain is whether Italy is quite ready for the revolution he has in mind.
Among his strongest supporters are his students at the Carlo Cattaneo Free University Institute in Castellanza, Varese, where he has been professor of the criminal law of economics since 1995. "I teach them that respect for the law in business can make for increased profits and that honest competition, product quality and personal standing are the key factors."
Di Pietro's university lectures have been suspended owing to his chaotic pre-election schedule, but he still finds time to see his students every few weeks for examinations and graduation theses. Not surprisingly, he is constantly inundated with applications to supervise theses. No one wants to miss the opportunity of being personally tutored by the man who accomplished the impossible by actually changing Italy - if only for a brief spell.