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Politicians fiddling while Rome burns?

Dark dealings in Italy’s capital. Rosino, CC BY-SA

Italian politics has been rocked by a scandal in the country’s capital. Politicians stand accused of working within a pervasive and wide-reaching criminal network dubbed “Mafia Capitale” to skim money from public services and bribe officials. And it may have been going on for years.

So far 37 people have been arrested in relation to the scandal and around 100 are under investigation, including politicians and known criminals. Many are accused of bribery and corruption. Around €200m euros in assets have been frozen but it is thought the actual breadth and depth of this network could be much more significant.

Money intended for basic services such as refuse collection and vital projects such as community centres for refugees and Roma was being embezzled by the people supposed to be in charge of the capital city. Basic and often vital city services were being compromised while the rich and powerful reaped the benefits.

Under suspicion

Those under investigation include Massimo Carminati, a former member of the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, a neofascist organisation that operated between 1977 to 1981.

Others being questioned include prominent politicians such as Gianni Alemanno, the former mayor of Rome, who is being investigated for suspected bribery, extortion and mafia links.

Luca Gramazio, has resigned his position as member of the Lazio regional council in order to defend himself against corruption charges levelled against him.

Massimo Carminati is arrested in Rome. EPA/Carabinieri

And then there is Salvatore Buzzi, head of the 29 June Co-operative, which provides services to some of the most vulnerable people in Rome, such as the homeless and marginalised Roma. In wire-tapped phone conversations, he was heard saying that the network had made €40m by exploiting “gypsies and immigrants”. Channelling money away from migrants, he says, is more profitable than trafficking drugs.

Buzzi’s secretary, who is now in prison, has reportedly confessed to organising these illegal affairs and preparing envelopes full of money for him.

Just when things were looking up

With cases like this, it’s hardly surprising that 58% of Italians think corruption is widespread in their country and that around 75% think it is getting worse.

The recently published Corruption Perception Index rated Italy as the most corrupt state in the European Union. It is also perceived to be more corrupt than Turkey, Kuwait and South Africa. And in another recent survey, only 5.1% of Italians said they trusted political parties.

That is an improvement on 2008 figures though, when the European Social Survey found that only 0.9% of Italians had confidence in political parties and 39.5% had no confidence at all.

In June 2012 the Group of States against Corruption said Italy was [making progress]( towards greater transparency in party financing but advised the country to seriously commit to improving justice against those charged with corruption. Corruption investigations and trials are often slow. They cost the country around €60 billion a year. Yet the costs of corruption were estimated to be as high as 40% in large-scale infrastructure projects, so something still needs to be done.

A lack of trust in politicians and political parties undermines the social and political fabric of a nation and can lead to political apathy or, on the other hand, populist mobilisation.

Beppe Grillo, leader of the emerging Five Star Movement, has tapped into this. He has campaigned against what he calls “the drones” – thieving politicians with ever increasing salaries. His party became the second biggest presence in parliament after the 2013 elections and has long called for Rome to be cleaned up. “Get the Mafia out of Rome”, argued Grillo in a recent blog, as the MoVement asked for a meeting with the local public prosecutor to arrange handing the city “back to its people”. He wants to see the whole local governance structure dissolved and rebuilt from scratch.

Ignazio Marino, the current mayor of Rome, in office from May 2013, was somewhat unpopular before the Mafia Capitale scandal broke but is now being viewed in a more favourable light. For some, he is the change the city needs. Despite Grillo’s campaign to support the dissolution of the municipality, Marino might be able to work on trust and repair the system without going for the nuclear option.

If he is to be successful though, he and other politicians have a lot of work to do to win back the trust of the public.

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