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The German of Italian politics sets a record for longevity in office

By Rik RensenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 1985



Rome

They call him ``Il Tedesco'' -- the German. Italians have given Prime Minister Bettino Craxi that nickname because he is different from other Italian politicians.

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He is efficient. He hates to give interviews. He is energetic and goes straight to the point.

It is these qualities that helped him last Friday to become the country's longest-serving prime minister since the creation of the republic after World War II.

And he organized a party last Friday to celebrate. It was just a small party for his close friends, because there was not much to be happy about. His government faces many difficulties following its near collapse in the wake of the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.

Despite his problems, Mr. Craxi was entitled to his small celebration. Last Friday, he had been in office for two years, two months, and nine days. The average Italian cabinet lasts about six months.

Italy has been governed by not fewer than 44 cabinets since the war, usually headed by a Christian Democratic prime minister. And that was the second reason for the little celebration party. Craxi is the nation's first Socialist prime minister.

His star began to rise in 1979 when he started campaigning to become Italy's first Socialist prime minister.

At that time, Craxi wasn't ready to become prime minister. Politicians said he was too young and too inexperienced. He attended a meeting in the presidential palace in his blue jeans. And the gap between the leading Christian Democratic Party and the Socialists was too large at that time to make him acceptable as government leader.

But by 1983, Craxi had become a riper and wiser man. He had thrown out some of his radical leftist ideas, and agreed, for example, with the deployment of NATO cruise missiles on the Italian island of Sicily. Moreover, the Christian Democrats at that time needed help in fighting the newly strengthened Communist Party in Parliament.

The Socialist Party agreed to cooperate again with the Christian Democrats, but their new leader, Bettino Craxi, put one condition on the marriage -- a Socialist should be the next prime minister. The Christian Democrats accepted the condition.

In July 1983 Craxi started to form what became a five-party coalition, including the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, the Social Democrats, the Republicans, and the Liberals.

Craxi had changed indeed. He started wearing expensive suits (but refused to get rid of his red tie). He piloted his government through heavy seas, and the longer his Cabinet lasted the more amazed the Italian people became.

In late September, some Italian newspapers started mentioning that Craxi was nearing the all-time record of the late Prime Minister Aldo Moro.

But the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in October seemed to dash those hopes.

Political infighting over the way Craxi handled the affair led to a split within his Cabinet. Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini pulled his Republican Party out of the Cabinet, and Craxi was forced to offer his resignation to President Francesco Cossiga.

But Italian politics is full of surprises, and one of them is that Craxi came back three weeks later with his old Cabinet.

President Cossiga had initially accepted Craxi's resignation, and asked him to form a new government. Through negotiations, Craxi rebuilt his Cabinet, and, at that point, Cossiga simply rejected the three-week-old resignation.

Now Craxi is firmly back in the saddle, and has gained the all-time record for longevity in Italian politics.

Still there are those who wonder how long his government will last. During the last few years, Craxi rebuilt the Italian economy, but his work is not yet finished.

``Il Tedesco'' continues to have his work cut out for him in the snake pit that is Italian politics.