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Oscar Luigi Scalfaro

Oscar Luigi Scalfaro

Oscar Luigi Scalfaro (born 1918) was a prominent Christian Democratic leader for over forty years before becoming the president of the Italian Republic in May 1992 for a seven-year term.

Oscar Luigi Scalfaro became the president of the Italian Republic on May 25, 1992. His election took place in one of the periods of greatest political and social turmoil in the history of post-World War II Italy. Scalfaro was immediately invested with much of the responsibility for solving Italy's crisis.

Scalfaro, a native of the northwestern region of Piedmont, was known as an austere and incorruptible politician, as well as a devout Catholic attending Mass every day. This image indeed explains his election to the presidency, as the principal task at hand was to return Italian public and political life to a more moral course. Scalfaro's election was in fact prompted by harsh criticism against the government because of corruption among political leaders and ineffectiveness in several areas, especially in dealing with the seemingly all-powerful Mafia in Sicily and other parts of the country.

Votes for Scalfaro—who, according to the provisions of the Italian constitution, was elected by Italy's deputies and senators—reached the necessary majority immediately after the shockingly brutal murder of Sicilian magistrate Giovanni Falcone, along with his wife and bodyguards. Falcone had achieved national fame and popularity due to his courageous and outspoken anti-Mafia campaigns. Anger against the government erupted in the course of the Falcones' funerals, prompting many Italian members of Parliament to end political bickering over the presidential election. A 12-day stalemate was broken and conservative Scalfaro became president with the votes of the Christian Democrats as well as the Left, including the ex-Communist Democratic Party of the Left, the Greens, and the Radicals. Undoubtedly his ability to remain untainted by the widespread Italian political scandals, as well as his moral stature, were key to understanding this unusual vote of the Left for a conservative leader.

Scalfaro was born September 9, 1918, in Novara in the Piedmont. After graduating from the Catholic University Sacro Cuore in Milan and after the end of World War II, Scalfaro was continuously in public service and could indeed be considered one of the founding fathers of the Italian Republic—Italy ceased to be a monarchy in 1946. Elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1948, he had represented the district of Turin without interruption since that time. Scalfaro was a prominent and independent-minded Christian Democratic member of Parliament for more than forty years. Over that period of time he also served as a prosecuting attorney and held several important government posts, such as minister of transportation (1966-1968), education (1972-1973), and the interior (1983-1987). Following the 1992 elections he became speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.

Despite this long and prestigious career, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro was not widely known by the public until he became president, perhaps because of his austere style. However, upon assuming the highest office in the Italian Republic, he immediately readapted the office to his own personality, creating a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Francesco Cossiga. Cossiga had distinguished himself primarily for his verbal attacks, at times quite violent, against the corrupt political practices rampant in Italy. The violence of the attacks, however, while attracting the public's attention to Italy's most fundamental leadership problems, also appeared to demean the office of the presidency. It was thus Scalfaro's task to restore a more decorous style to the presidency. That he proceeded to do quite effectively as soon as he assumed office.

He signaled immediately his support for a far more decisive struggle against the Mafia and did not hesitate to break a political deadlock that had existed since the election in April 1992, shortly before Cossiga's resignation. The voters in fact had dealt a blow to the so-called governmental parties—those centrist and moderate leftist groups that had been the Christian Democrats' cabinet partners—and it was quite unclear how a new governing majority could be formed. Scalfaro did not hesitate to appoint as prime minister a Socialist leader who, like himself, had always been considered an outsider and had remained untainted by political scandals. This man, Giuliano Amato (and later Carlo Ciampi), proceeded to restore the Italian budget, plagued by the largest deficit in the republic's history, with full support from Scalfaro. Scalfaro's choices proved wise, as the new prime minister could undertake a number of fiscal measures that, even though unpopular, began the process of budgetary restoration.

After another magistrate, Paolo Borsellino, was murdered by the Mafia, the government took decisive steps to fight the Mafia. Scalfaro, who was Interior Minister, also played a key role in cleaning up police corruption and in the prosecutions of hundreds of Cosa Nostra leaders in Sicily prompted by the defection of informant Tommaso Buscetta. He missed no opportunity to provide moral leadership to enforce the necessary sweeping and painful police operations in Sicily and other regions of Italy.

During Scalfaro's presidency other scandals broke out that threatened the very existence of the Italian Republic. Magistrates in Milan and elsewhere exposed an exceedingly extensive system of political corruption: businessmen obtained contracts from local public administrations by paying bribes to elected officials. All public projects' costs were largely inflated, at the taxpayers' expenses, so that businesses could gain sufficient funds to sustain the widespread bribe system.

If Scalfaro's task as moral leader was difficult, he generally was praised for his efforts in removing the stain of corruption from the country he was elected to represent. When in 1993 he was briefly accused in connection with one of the scandals, a thoroughly demoralized public expressed fear that their "last best hope" was also corrupt. Yet Scalfaro's nationwide televised appearance, through which he indignantly denied any wrongdoing, was so convincing that rumors about his guilt vanished quickly. The high ratings of the program and the level of national anxiety raised in those circumstances were themselves a testimony of the extent to which Italians have become accustomed to Scalfaro's moral leadership.

In the March 1994 elections a disgusted Italian electorate gave short shrift to the heretofore dominant parties of Christian Democrats and Socialists. In a whirlwind campaign, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, under the soccer slogan Forza Italia (Go Italy), put together a loose grouping of conservatives, federalists, and neo-fascists. Calling themselves the Freedom Alliance, the new party won a clear majority in the Senate and a strong plurality in the Chamber of Deputies. A granddaughter of former dictator Benito Mussolini was among those elected. President Scalfaro named Berlusconi prime minister, and he took office May 10, 1994, with a 25-member cabinet representing all shades of the political spectrum. Scalfaro had publicly warned Berlusconi not to choose anyone who might cause harm to Italy at home or abroad.

Scalfaro endured a very conflictual relationship with Berlusconi, who criticized the President as the spokesman and representative of the old guard, the "First Republic." Berlusconi stopped just short of calling for Scalfaro's resignation to open the way to a "Second Republic" unencumbered by the weight of the corrupt, immobilized past. Scalfaro was implicated in that past by Berlusconi because he had been elected by the scandal-ridden 1992 Parliament and because he interpreted the Constitution very strictly, thus creating obstacles for many of Berlusconi's proposed and frequently self-serving electoral reforms.

In 1996, faced with a situation in which the big parties could neither agree on a feasible governing coalition nor resolve an ongoing conflict over changes to the new predominantly-winner-take-all parliamentary electoral system, Scalfaro took the drastic step of calling for elections three years ahead of schedule. The elections were held under the existing rules in which 3/4 of the seats were winner-take-all and 1/4 were elected by proportional rules. When the secessionist Northern League of Umberto Bossi emerged from those elections with a strong showing, Scalfaro was moved to address the nation in a strongly worded speech in which he declared that Italian unity must remain non-negotiable.

Scalfaro's presidency took place during a troubled and highly transformational period for Italy. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe dried up U.S. aid to the ruling Center-Right, which had held power since the end of World War II and which the U.S. had nurtured as the major countervailing force to the Italian Communist Party, the largest such party in the West; the increasing economic and resulting political pressure resulting from the effort to meet European Community standards; the existence of strong secessionist and federalist attitudes within the polity; and the enormous upheaval caused by the 1992 scandal revelations—-all took place during Scalfaro's term. In this time of upheaval, Scalfaro strengthened the presidency, bringing to it an aura of personal integrity, a resolute willingness to act forcefully and decisively, and an unbending committment to national unity.

Scalfaro was a widower with one child. He lived in the presidential palace, the Palazzo del Quirinale.

Further Reading

There was not much information published in the English language about Scalfaro, owing to his relative obscurity outside Italy before becoming president. West European Politics provided analytic articles on the Italian political system. For the anti-Mafia campaigns in Sicily, see Alexander Stille, Excellent Cadavers (1995). □

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