Tangentopoli (Italy)

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Tangentopoli 🇮🇹
Italy map.png
Location: Italy
Definition: System of political corruption in Italy based on kickbacks, which culminated in the judicial investigation leading to the demise of the so-called First Republic
Keywords: Italy Europe EU Political party Bribe Collusion Elite
Clusters: Market Functional ambivalence Gaming the system Camouflage Free-riding
Author: Liliana Onorato
Affiliation: Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
Website: Profile page at LinkedIn

By Liliana Onorato, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

The term Tangentopoli comes from the words tangente, meaning ‘kickback’ or ‘bribe’ in Italian, and poli, from the ancient Greek word polis, meaning ‘city’ (De Mauro and Mancini 2000[1]). It is commonly translated in English as ‘Bribesville’ (Clari and Love 1995[2]) or ‘Kickback City’ (Bareggi 2010[3]).

The word was coined by the Italian media to describe the web of corruption that characterised the political and entrepreneurial scene in the city of Milan (Treccani Vocabolario 2015[4]). This was revealed in February 1992 when Mario Chiesa, a member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), was arrested on suspicion of accepting a bribe in order to promote a business deal (Guanci 2011[5]). The PSI disavowed Chiesa, claiming that he had been acting as a lone wolf and did not represent the party (Corriere della Sera TV 2012[6]). Chiesa retaliated by spilling the dirt on the political system as a whole. His revelations uncovered a web of corrupt relations between political parties, business and organised crime, and provoked a judicial investigation known as Mani pulite (‘Clean hands’) (Guanci 2011[7]). Soon it became clear that what had been going on was not an isolated event confined to Milan, but a nationwide system of political corruption (Treccani Enciclopedia 2015[8]).

The term Tangentopoli accordingly came to denote a system based on tacit agreements whereby entrepreneurs paid bribes to politicians as an informal ‘tax’ to obtain public contracts, and politicians then used the money to fund their political parties (Della Porta 2015[9]). In its broadest sense, the term became synonymous with any kind of widespread political corruption (Treccani Vocabolario 2015[10]).

Milano Italia Mani Pulite.png

The term Tangentopoli was widely used both in the Italian media and in the international press (see Bibliography). The level of coverage of corruption in the Italian media is higher than in most other other European countries and encompasses national politics, the judicial system and, to a lesser extent, business (Mazzoni 2016: 3-22[11]).

An analogous practice might be otkat in Russia (kickback) whereby officials choose a supplier of goods or services for a public contract and receive remuneration from the provider in the form of a fixed sum of money or a percentage of the transaction amount. However, Tangentopoli differs from otkat in that in Italy it denotes kickbacks that are mainly used to fund political parties, whereas in Russia the money may be used however the recipient chooses.

Milano Tangentopoli.png
The fact that Tangentopoli sees politicians asking businesspeople for bribes in return for public contracts suggests a degree of coercion that might make the practice comparable to the system of corruption practised by the mafia, where bribes are characterised by extortion of mazzette (kickbacks). The main difference between the two practices however is that, in the case of Tangentopoli, it is politicians who ask for kickbacks to allow companies to win public contracts whereas, in the case of the mafia, mafia members extort money from civilians and owners of small businesses in return for protection. The behaviour of both politicians and mafia members is similar in that both are the ‘actors’ who demand kickbacks.

Although it is always hard to define which direction corruption takes—who is the agent and who the target—it might be claimed that, in some specific instances, politicians may be seen as the ‘targets’ of corruption, rather than as its instigators. This is the case in situations in which the mafia, being in control of some areas, makes financial demands to politicians in return for their votes and the extortion of votes from civilians. Indeed, the informal systems of the mafia and Tangentopoli may be closely associated when mafia members put pressure on politicians and convince them through extortion to assign public contracts to companies controlled by the mafia, thereby creating a three-way system of corruption that includes not only politicians and entrepreneurs, but also the mafia as an active player. An example of such interrelation is provided by Mafia Capitale, a criminal organisation uncovered in 2014 through which mafia exponents controlled many public works in the city of Rome by means of contacts and bribery of politicians and public officials (Micocci 2015[12]). While this has been compared to Tangentopoli, it has also been seen as a new form of corruption since it directly involves organised crime (‘Mafia Capitale' 2014[13]).

The Tangentopoli scandal had a significant impact on Italian politics and society. Under strong public pressure and intense investigations, many politicians confessed or resigned; some fled the country, including the leader of the PSI, Bettino Craxi, who fled to Turkey in 1995; while others, including Sergio Moroni, a Socialist MP, committed suicide while under investigation (Montanelli and Cervi 2013: chapter 14[14]). The ‘moralisation campaign,’ headed by magistrate and future politician Antonio Di Pietro, won enthusiastic public support (Pollo 1996[15]). More broadly, the widespread public indignation provoked by the Mani pulite operation resulted in significant changes on the political scene. At one point, more than half of the members of parliament were under investigation, while 400 city and town councils were dissolved as a result of corruption charges (Koff 2000: 2[16]). Political parties including Christian Democracy, the PSI and the Communist Party, which had dominated the political scene for decades, lost public confidence and were eventually dissolved. By contrast, populist parties which pursued anti-corruption campaigns, such as the Northern League, won increased public support (Montanelli and Cervi 2013: chapter 15[17]). The scandal accordingly led to a radical restructuring of the ‘First Republic,’ that is, the political sysem that had operated in Italy since the end of the Second World War, and its replacement by a reformed electoral system that came informally to be known as the Second Italian Republic (Koff 2000: 1-3, 31[18]). The scandal also had important economic implications, provoking a sharp fall both in the value of the Italian currency and in international confidence in the country’s reliability as a haven for investment (Barbacetto, Gomez and Travaglio 2002: 32-3[19])

In popular perception, Tangentopoli left a strong mark on Italian culture and was depicted in literature, theatre and cinema productions (see Further Reading). ‘Tangentopoli’ became the Italian variant of the game Monopoly (‘Tangentopoli diventa gioco’ 1992[20]). Music played a particularly important role in spreading opinions and criticism. Anti-politics became a popular theme of many Italian songs which in their lyrics depicted the negative elements related to the First Republic such as the unlimited power and corruption exercised by political parties. Singers who denounced the system included Franco Battiato in his song ‘Poor Italy’ (Povera Italia), Pierangelo Bertoli in ‘Golden Italy’ (L’Italia d’oro), Antonello Venditti in ‘Everybody to hell’ (Tutti all’inferno), Edoardo Bennato in ‘Who are you?’ (Tu chi sei?) and Giorgio Gaber in ‘Right-Left’ (Destra-Sinistra).

References and Bibliography

  1. Almerighi, M. 2009. Tre suicidi eccellenti. Gardini, Cagliari, Castellari. Rome: Editori Riuniti
  2. D’Avanzo, G. 1992. ‘Tangentopoli in Sicilia,’ La Repubblica, 28 November http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/1992/11/28/tangentopoli-in-sicilia.html?ref=search
  3. Fumarola, S. 2014. ‘Tangentopoli, la fiction,’ La Repubblica, 25 July http://www.repubblica.it/spettacoli/tv-radio/2014/07/25/news/tangentopoli_la_fiction_milano_1992_il_thriller_sul_terremoto_che_sconvolse_l_italia-92343739/
  4. La Repubblica. 1992. ‘Tangentopoli a Salerno,’ 22 September http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/1992/09/22/tangentopoli-salerno-scarcerati-todini-rosi.html?ref=search
  5. La Repubblica. 1992. ‘Tangentopoli a Reggio Calabria,’ 8 October http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/1992/10/08/tangentopoli-reggio-calabria-consiglio-sciolto-un-altro.html?ref=search
  6. La Repubblica. 1992. ‘Tangentopoli nella Lucania del terremoto,’ 20 November, http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/1992/11/20/tangentopoli-nella-lucania-del-terremoto.html?ref=searchteatrodiroma.net. 2015. ‘Suicidi? Tangentopoli in commedia,’ 12 March http://www.teatrodiroma.net/doc/3316/suicidi-tangentopoli-in-commedia


  1. De Mauro, T. and Mancini, M. 2000. Garzanti Etimologico: i grandi dizionari. Milano: Garzanti Linguistica
  2. Clari, M. and Love, C. 1995. Collins English-Italian, Italian-English Dictionary. Glasgow: Harper Collins.
  3. Bareggi, M. 2010. Oxford-Paravia Italian Dictionary. Oxford and Milan: Oxford University Press and Pearson Italia.
  4. Treccani Vocabolario online. 2015. ‘Tangentopoli,’ http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/tangentopoli/
  5. Guanci, V. 2011. ‘1992, Tangentopoli,’ Treccani Scuola http://www.treccani.it/scuola/maturita/terza_prova/storia_contemporanea_in_immagini/1992_Guanci_Tangentopoli.html
  6. Corriere della Sera TV. 2012. ‘Chiesa è un mariuolo’, 15 February http://video.corriere.it/chiesa-mariuolo/66cf2528-5800-11e1-8cd8-b2fbc2e45f9f
  7. Guanci, V. 2011. ‘1992, Tangentopoli,’ Treccani Scuola http://www.treccani.it/scuola/maturita/terza_prova/storia_contemporanea_in_immagini/1992_Guanci_Tangentopoli.html
  8. Treccani Enciclopedia online. 2015. ‘Tangentopoli,’ http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/tangentopoli_(Dizionario-di-Storia)/
  9. Della Porta, D. 2015. ‘Tangentopoli,’ Treccani Enciclopedia Italiana http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/tangentopoli_%28Enciclopedia-Italiana%29/
  10. Treccani Vocabolario online. 2015. ‘Tangentopoli,’ http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/tangentopoli/
  11. Mazzoni, M. 2016. ‘Anti-Corruption Policies Revisited. Computer Assisted Content Analysis of the News Media Coverage of Corruption in Italy,’ Perugia: University of Perugia Press.
  12. Micocci, S. 2015. ‘Mafia Capitale, il maxi processo spiegato in 5 punti: fatti, indagati e accuse,’ forexinfo.it, 5 November https://www.forexinfo.it/Mafia-Capitale-il-maxi-processo
  13. Libero Quotidiano. 2014. ‘Mafia capitale, Di Pietro: “E’ peggio di Tangentopoli, c’è pure la criminalità organizzata”,’ 3 December http://www.liberoquotidiano.it/news/cronaca/11729239/Mafia-capitale--Di-Pietro-.html
  14. Montanelli, I. and Cervi, M. 2013. Storia d’Italia. L’Italia degli anni di fango 1978-1993. Milan: Biblioteca universale Rizzoli.
  15. Pollo, P. 1996. ‘L’ex pm ha superato la soglia dell’eroe. Otto italiani su dieci lo sostengono,’ Corriere della Sera, 11 December http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/1996/dicembre/11/superato_soglia_dell_eroe_inattaccabile_co_0_96121114618.shtml
  16. Koff, S. and Koff, S. 2000. Italy: From the 1st to the 2nd Republic. London and New York: Routledge.
  17. Montanelli, I. and Cervi, M. 2013. Storia d’Italia. L’Italia degli anni di fango 1978-1993. Milan: Biblioteca universale Rizzoli.
  18. Koff, S. and Koff, S. 2000. Italy: From the 1st to the 2nd Republic. London and New York: Routledge.
  19. Barbacetto, G., Gomez, P. and Travaglio, M. 2002. Mani Pulite. La Vera Storia. Rome: Editori Riuniti.
  20. Corriere della Sera. 1992. ‘Tangentopoli diventa gioco,’ 28 June.