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Tangentopoli (Italian for ''bribesville'') was the name used to indicate the corruption-based system in politics that had its heyday in Italy in the 1980s and early 1990s until the Mani pulite investigation delivered it a deadly blow in 1992. Whether the resulting changes to Italian politics have been substantive or merely superficial is a matter of some debate.
The name Tangentopoli is a deformation of Paperopoli (translation of Duckburg, the city of Donald Duck). We can translate "Tangentopoli" as "payoff city", in the same way as Paperopoli sounds like "Ducks City".
Popular distrust of politics
Italians have often been skeptical of their own politicians. It is a common attitude throughout the country to consider the state inefficient, corruption widespread and success based on personal acquaintances rather than merit. While these claims are somewhat simplistic generalizations, they were not a bad approximation of the real picture.
Rich friars and poor monasteries
It was often observed that, while political parties (especially government members) were in a perennial state of need of money to organize their activities, many politicians were leading lifestyles beyond their means. The powerful secretary of the Italian Socialist Party, Bettino Craxi, is often taken as a typical example, since he had a permanent residence in an expensive hotel in Rome's centre and also owned a villa in Hammamet, Tunisia. Descriptions of the villa range from a castle with an 18-hole golf course to a relatively modest seaside villas. Whatever the case, Craxi was, in keeping with the general image of Italian politics, living well beyond his means.
Another member of the Italian Socialist Party, Rino Formica, once made a statement that remains proverbial: ''The friars are rich, but the monastery is poor''.
It was obvious that careers in state conglomerates, especially public television RAI, were likely to be influenced more by personal acquaintances than by competence. A popular saying may be translated as: "It does not matter ''what'' you know, it matters ''whom'' you know". Again, one of the most blatant cases was Bettino Craxi's mistress, Sandra Milo, making an impressive career in state television during the 1980s.
The term lottizzazione, meaning the way a terrain is divided up in minor parts or ''lotti'', came to indicate the procedure of awarding guidance of such important state conglomerates as IRI, ENEL or ENI to political figures, or at least managers with a clear political orientation. This usually trickled down to lower levels, creating power centres depending on political parties that controlled a significant part of the production system.
The available seats were usually awarded so that government parties (and opposition parties like the Italian Communist Party) would get a share of power corresponding to their perceived influence in the government. Most people suspected that this "market" could hide less-than-clear interests, and also be a way to illegally accumulate capital by means of corruption and mismanagement. Sadly, the investigations of the early '90s proved these suspicions to be mostly true.
The Cencelli Manual
When forming a government, a set of rules, often dubbed Manuale Cencelli from the name of a politician particularly good at this, used to be applied. Governing parties received ministries and charges (collectively dubbed as ''seats'') according to their electoral weight. Some seats were less important than others (e.g., the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was more important than the Ministry of the Environment). Some were permanently linked to a party, like the Ministry of Internal Affairs (the Italian Home Office) which was always appointed to a member of the Democrazia Cristiana from 1948 to 1993. Furthermore, minor parties, such as the Italian Socialist Democratic Party, the Italian Liberal Party and the Italian Republican Party, could often leverage their decisive contribution to attaining a parliamentary majority in order to be over-represented in terms of distributed seats.
This system resulted in a long series of incompetent ministers, who received their "seat" only because the ''Cencelli'' system calculated there was a gap to fill for a certain party. Among the least pleasantly remembered figures are: Paolo Cirino Pomicino, Minister of the State Budget, a medical doctor who lacked any economic competence and was later sentenced on corruption charges; Francesco De Lorenzo, who was later found to be one of the most corrupt ministers of Public Health ever to take charge; and Giovanni Prandini, for similar reasons immediately dubbed ''Prendini'' (from the Italian ''prendere'', "to take").
A stable instability
Looking at the list of Italian prime ministers since the end of the Second World War, it is evident that most governments were short-lived, lasting 11 months on average. The shortest of them lasted just three days.
All Italian parties had a large popular membership (the Communists more than two million voters until 1956, the Christian Democrats almost the same by the early 1970s), recruited from organizations such as Catholic Action, cooperatives, and trade unions. These organizations often provided tangible benefits —jobs, disability pensions, and cheap holidays— to their members. Most parties except the Communists were groupings of organized semi-official “factions” and each faction had its own leader, deputies, regional or ideological base, sources of finance, and journals. Within each party, factions vied for power and control of wealthy firms and agencies in the public sector of economy in order to secure financial backing and jobs for supporters. This was the essential reason why governments between 1945–94 were short-lived: governments had to be reshuffled regularly in order to allow different faction leaders to obtain posts. Government instability was encouraged by secret voting in Parliament, which enabled deputies from dissatisfied factions within the governing coalition parties to bring down the administration without attracting personal blame.
However, instability was often more apparent than real —key government posts were held semi-permanently by top politicians— and it was mitigated by the Secretaries of the leading parties, who negotiated acceptable deals among faction leaders. Indeed, party Secretaries were sometimes more influential than the Prime Minister, since the latter had no direct mandate from the electorate and was often not even the most prominent party member.
Italian politics is regarded as unstable, but throughout this period the parliamentary majority remained much the same, with the Democrazia Cristiana being the largest party, and the only change worth noting being the Socialists sharing government during the 1980s. The system was known as "imperfect bipolarism", as it was impossible for the only major opposition party, the Communists, to gain control of a NATO country. This was in marked and highly significant contrast with most European democracies, as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, where left-wing and right-wing alternated to power.
Nominally, Italy was ruled by a center, or center-left coalition, but the main opposition was in fact on the left of the government. Only the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano lay to the right. In practice, the Democrazia Cristiana collected most right-wing votes (apart from the small Partito Liberale Italiano (PLI) and the short-lived Monarchist Party), even though its orientation was initially defined as a ''center party looking to the left''. Post-war, Italy's fascist past lent the term "right-wing" fascist connotations, and so was avoided. A center-right cabinet was formed by Fernando Tambroni (DC) in the early sixties, obtaining the necessary parliamentary votes from the MSI: however, this soon led to widespread riots, culminating in the Genoa riots, and the cabinet lost its parliamentary confidence.
Most of the new governments that were formally continuously created, were really just adjustments, based on the Cencelli manual, carried out only after some event had changed the political scenario: typically, a large local election might indicate that some parties or some specific politicians had increased their power, requiring more government seats; this would however reduce someone else's share, and a delicate balance had to be struck. Negotiations for the formation of a new cabinet could take months, and given the short duration of these cabinets talks for the formation of the next one could sometimes be their main activity.
The uninterrupted tenure in office of many politicians contributed to the rise of a political class that ignored public opinion, as they were confident that the majority would never vote for the Communists. The feeling of invulnerability and impunity was broken in 1992, when the Mani Pulite investigation began. It is curious that it happened one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, possibly when the citizens did not consider it necessary anymore to keep certain politicians in office merely because they were anti-communist.