One of the mafia’s most notorious crimes has returned after 20 years to haunt Italy, dragging Italian President Giorgio Napolitano into a nasty constitutional dispute in the run-up to a watershed election next year.
The dispute, connected to the murder of anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino and his five-strong police escort in Palermo, Italy, in July 1992, has unleashed a messy clash involving state institutions, politicians, judges and the media.
The clash erupted when Napolitano demanded that prosecutors destroy a taped conversation between him and one of 12 people accused of negotiating with mob bosses. Critics say his action could undermine the power of judges to investigate politicians, open him to political attacks and spark a constitutional crisis.
The case has erupted at a time when the president must play a crucial role, deciding when to call elections — most likely next spring — and shepherding the debt-laden country toward a poll ending Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technocrat government.
What will follow is deeply uncertain, adding to market jitters about Italy’s economy. Both sides accuse the other of trying to exploit the dispute for political ends and weaken the president at a sensitive moment.
Napolitano himself issued an unusually angry statement on Thursday last week referring to “dark and destabilizing moves,” while Monti said: “We are faced by an exploitative attack.”
The president is accorded unusual respect in a country where most politicians are viewed with skepticism or contempt, and Napolitano was hailed as a hero when he ended the scandal-plagued tenure of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister in November last year and brought in Monti to save Italy from a Greek-style crisis.
However, a dispute over an investigation into alleged negotiations to stop mafia attacks on government and judicial officials before and after Borsellino’s murder has exposed him to unusually outspoken attacks.
Napolitano became vulnerable because the prosecutors taped calls made to him by former Italian interior minister Nicola Mancino, who is accused of perjury for denying he knew about the negotiations. Mancino was allegedly asking for help in dealing with the case during the calls starting in November.
Napolitano says it is illegal to tap the president, even indirectly, and when the prosecutors denied this and refused to destroy the recording, he appealed to the constitutional court. He says he has nothing to hide, but is protecting his office as an independent figure above the political fray.
The court has promised to expedite a verdict by the end of the year, only a few months before the expected election date, but Napolitano’s action has already created a political storm with unpredictable results.
Borsellino’s brother, Salvatore, has called on Napolitano to step down. He said the president’s action was “an obstacle on the road to truth and justice over the massacre and the negotiations, which led to the murder of my brother.”
He called on Napolitano to make the call public and put an end to “maneuvers possibly aimed at destabilizing the president and our country’s institutions.”
Most mainstream papers and major parties have defended Napolitano, but he has been attacked by rising populist leader Beppe Grillo, the Fatto Quotidiano daily and former magistrate Antonio di Pietro, who leads the small Italy of Values party.