Italian politics have acquired a king-maker and a king-breaker. He is Bettino Craxi, secretary-general of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).
He is the key figure to watch in the current crisis in Rome, following the resignation Aug. 6 of Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini's coalition government. Mr. Craxi, more than any other single politician, has it in his power to determine whether Mr. Spadolini can put together another coalition cabinet -- as he was asked to do by Italian President Sandro Pertini Aug. 11 -- or whether an early general election is the only way to give Italy a new government.
Fourteen months ago, Mr. Craxi's maneuvering was mainly responsible for Italy's first non-Christian Democrat prime minister -- in the person of Mr. Spadolini, a Republican -- since the country's return to parliamentary democracy after World War II.
Now he is responsible for the collapse of Mr. Spadolini's five-party coalition Cabinet. This happened when he ordered the seven Socialists in the coalition to withdraw from it.
But on Aug. 12 Mr. Craxi rejected Mr. Spadolini's invitation to resurrect the coalition. ''Our party does not orient itself toward accepting his proposal,'' Mr. Craxi said.
The reason publicly given for this Socialist break with the coalition was the defeat in parliament of a government-backed austerity measure that would have deprived Italian oil companies of some of the tax concessions they have hitherto enjoyed. The measure was defeated because some of the Christian Democrat legislators voted against it, even though the Christian Democrats were the single biggest bloc in Mr. Spadolini's Cabinet. This, said Mr. Craxi, had made Italy ''ungovernable'' under the incumbent coalition.
But there are those who suspect that behind this rationale, Mr. Craxi saw in the oil company tax concession vote the issue he had been waiting for to bring down the government and force an early general election.
At first sight this might seem quixotic, since the Socialists were the second biggest bloc in Mr. Spadolini's coalition and wielded considerable power within it. But the relatively youthful Mr. Craxi is a man in a hurry -- and with a mission.
He believes the Socialists, under his activist leadership, are the only party with forward momentum in an Italy where a 30-year pattern of polarization between Christian Democrats (CD) on the center-right and the Communists (PCI) on the left is beginning to break up. His aim is to have the PSI take over from the PCI as the dominant party of the left -- as the Socialists under Francois Mitterrand have taken over from the Communists in France. He aims, too, to become prime minister of Italy -- and probably would personally refuse to serve in any other office in any coalition, even if he agreed to PSI participation in it at lower levels.
Mr. Craxi's overall aim is a bold one. In the last general election in Italy in 1979, his PSI got less than 10 percent of the national vote, compared with the CD's nearly 40 percent and the PCI's more than 30 percent.
But in local and regional elections since then, Mr. Craxi can point to steady if modest Socialist gains alongside CD and PCI losses. He believes that between the latter two there is a growing floating vote that the Socialists can pick up. He would count on proving this point nationally in any early general election.
Mr. Craxi's chosen tactics to advance the PSI (and his own) cause at the national level are two-pronged.
He treats the PCI, Italy's second biggest party, as an antagonist to challenge and to keep off balance. At local levels, he selectively permits PSI cooperation with the PCI to enable the latter to control local administrations. When he suspends such cooperation, the aim is to throw the PCI off balance.
The CD, Italy's biggest party, he treats in a somewhat cavalier fashion in an effort to convince it that the PSI -- and not the Communists, as was once the case -- is the party of the left to deal with to preserve CD power.
This is the opposite of the tactics adopted by the French Socialists. They cooperated with, or used, the Communists in their climb to power. It was the Gaullists -- and their successors and allies on the center-right -- whom Mr. Mitterrand singled out as the main adversary of the Socialists.
And unlike the Socialists in France, the PSI under Mr. Craxi makes no concessions to the Communists in the field of foreign policy. It strongly supports Italy's active participation in NATO, agrees with the installation of cruise and Pershing II missiles on Italian territory next year, and denounces Soviet expansionism in all parts of the world.