ITALY, in recent years, has often been regarded as a nation of revolving-door governments -- with cabinets coming and going so fast that just keeping track of names and faces has been a task in itself. But guess what? The Italian government -- and that really means the Italian electorate -- is taking on a climate of stability and continuity that warrants the careful attention and praise of its fellow NATO allies in Western Europe and North America. The five party coalition government of Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi is proving itself politically popular -- and politically durable. Equally of interest, Italy's large Communist Party appears to be in trouble.
Before the recent May 12-13 local elections, Italian Communist Party (PCI) secretary Alessandro Natta announced that if his party received the largest share of votes he would ask for a mandate to form a cabinet and would probably call early national elections. In balloting for the European Parliament last June, the Communists raised concern throughout Europe and abroad by winning a greater percentage of the votes than the Christian Democrats, Italy's largest party.
On a trip to Washington, top Christian Democratic Party official Ciriaco De Mita informed American officials of the peril and the need to rebuff Mr. Natta -- whose victory would have dispelled the image of Communist confusion, reversed the PCI crisis caused by Bettino Craxi's long-lived five-party coalition Cabinet, revolutionized Italian politics, and tested the West's democratic philosophy. In Italy, Pope John Paul II mobilized conservative Roman Catholic organizations against the left to a degree unseen since the 1948 elections.
Fierce competition between Communists and Socialists -- former Popular Front partners -- contributed crucially to the Communist defeat. Accustomed to a subordinate socialist role, the Communists apprehensively followed Mr. Craxi's success at staying in power.
In an effort to cut Italy's double-digit inflation, Craxi trimmed the country's automatic cost-of-living increases in February 1984. The Communists branded him a traitor to the working class.
The May elections thus turned into a crucial test of Socialist policy.
Italian voters responded to all this in their usual subtle manner, with apparently insignificant shifts concealing important results.
Most important, the voters decisively rejected the Communists' policies. The PCI not only retrogressed to its status as Italy's second-largest party, but saw its influence decline throughout the nation.
The Communist defeat will probably lead to Natta's demise as secretary. Luciano Lama, former Communist labor union head who has stated that the PCI should become like the West German Social Democrats, is a likely replacement.
While the Christian Democrats have retained their designation as the nation's largest party, the party's vote also dropped compared with the 1980 local elections, although less than the Communists'. Party officials are seeking to modernize it. But the results do not encourage a Christian Democratic bid to reclaim the prime minister's office from the Socialists.
Clearly, the Socialists appear to have been the biggest winners in the latest electoral wars, picking up broad support across the country. The elections have thus bolstered Craxi's position and raised the distinct possibility that the current Cabinet will set a new record for longevity.
Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.