Insight : The new Italian government’s pledge to fight corruption

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LSE: The coalition that has just taken office in Rome did not begin well. But as Andrea Capussela writes, among its proposals is a plan to strengthen the rule of law, which could improve Italy’s unfair and inefficient system. Its opponents lie not only among the country’s establishment, however: tension also exists within the coalition between the Five Star Movement and the League. These obstacles can only be overcome through an open political battle, which could lead the coalition to a more productive path.

The Scholar writes that one trait that distinguishes Italy from her Western peers is the gravity and coexistence of corruption, tax evasion, and organised crime.

One encouraging trait of the new governing coalition, among many concerning ones, is its pledge to fight those criminal phenomena.

But one member of it, the League, was often involved in corruption scandals, has governed for nine years under the leadership of a convicted tax evader, Silvio Berlusconi, and has generally been tolerant with white-collar crime.

Corruption and tax evasion have been systemic problems for decades. In 1992-94, the political parties that had ruled Italy since 1948 were swept away by popular anger at the pervasive bribery unveiled by the so-called ‘Clean Hands’ judicial investigations. But the centre-right and centre-left coalitions that succeeded them were equally tainted by corruption, albeit to a different degree.

This part of the programme elicited sceptical reactions not just in centrist and centre-right circles, those traditionally most closely associated with bribery and tax evasion, but also among centre-left ones. In part, the criticism is persuasive. For instance, the proposal to use US-style integrity tests – namely, having policemen disguised as businessmen offering bribes to public officials, to test their loyalty to the public good and punish those who accept – is certainly problematic.

More importantly, the coalition’s overall approach suggests an excessive reliance on prison sentences, which ignores the deplorable conditions of some of Italy’s prisons and neglects the questions that anyway exist on the effectiveness of imprisonment as a means to prevent crime and re-educate criminals (both arguments which do not concern only white-collar crime, naturally, but ought to stimulate a wider debate on criminal justice). Stiffer financial penalties and tougher rules on the confiscation of ill-gotten or unexplained assets would seem a better policy.

Other critiques are less well founded. One example is the claim that the coalition’s plan to encourage whistleblowing is comparable to an autocracy’s requirement that citizens inform against each other. But even those more reasonable reservations are often used as a lever to usher in a sweeping critique of the whole part of the programme devoted to the rule of law, which seems to target the very intention of fighting white-collar crime with greater determination than in the past.

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