ROME A corruption scandal surrounding next year's Expo 2015 in Milan and separate criminal cases involving allies of former premier Silvio Berlusconi look set to fuel voter anger at this month's European elections, Italian politicians warned on Sunday.
Even for a country long inured to scandal, the arrest last week of seven officials connected with Expo 2015 Milan, including the event's procurement head, on charges of bribery and manipulating public tenders has caused anger.
The case has already reawakened memories of the "Bribesville" scandals of the 1990s, which began with an investigation into political bribes in Milan and exposed an entrenched system of corruption. It ended up toppling the entire party structure that had governed Italy since World War Two.
While the current case does not at this point appear to have gone as far as the abuses revealed by magistrates 20 years ago, it has demonstrated how deeply rooted political corruption and bribery remain in Italy.
"Corruption was not destroyed after 'Bribesville'," Pietro Grasso, a former top antimafia magistrate who is now president of the Senate told reporters on Sunday. "It's always been there, it's just changed its shape."
The arrest of former Industry Minister Claudio Scajola for helping a convicted businessman evade justice and a conviction for mafia association against Marcello Dell'Utri, one of Berlusconi's closest advisers, underlined the broader issue of political corruption.
With public trust in politics already at abysmally low levels and opinion polls pointing to a high level of abstentions in European parliamentary elections ending on May 25, there were warnings that the cases would turn voters off even more.
"These investigations create an ugly climate for politics which is likely to weigh on public opinion at a time when the country needs to regain the trust of citizens," Berlusconi's political adviser Giovanni Toti told SkyTG24 television.
Berlusconi himself began serving a community service sentence helping Alzheimer's Disease patients at an old people's home last week following his conviction for tax fraud last year.
Italy has long struggled to control rampant corruption and was ranked 69 out of 177 countries in Transparency International's index of world corruption last year, below countries including Montenegro, Ghana and Cuba.
The scandals have returned the issue to the front pages and could potentially affect both the left and the right while giving a lift to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's main adversary in the elections, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo.
With unemployment at record levels after years of economic slump, voters, especially the young who have been hardest hit in the crisis, have been increasingly receptive to Grillo's angry attacks on Italy's privileged political class.
While Renzi's center-left Democratic Party (PD) is leading in the opinion polls with scores of around 34-35 percent, the 5-Star Movement is second, some 10 points behind although some analysts believe its actual result could be higher.
Renzi is due to visit the site of the Expo outside Milan on Tuesday and has proposed setting up an anti-corruption task force to try to ensure that the project, seen as a prestigious shop window for Italy after years of economic crisis, is not submerged in scandal.
However there is no guarantee that the affair will end with last week's arrests, which included two figures implicated in Bribesville, Primo Greganti, a former official in the old communist party and Gianstefano Frigerio, a former Christian Democrat lawmaker who later moved to Berlusconi's party.
Rome daily Il Messaggero reported on Sunday that magistrates investigating the case were considering widening their inquiry to look at a possible involvement of the powerful Calabrian mafia 'Ndrangheta, now deeply embedded in northern Italy.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)