Italy moves toward greater political stability and financial discipline. Legislative reform does away with controversial practice of secret balloting

Italy has taken a great leap out of the political Dark Ages with last week's decision by Parliament to eliminate secret voting in its own chambers. The move marks a victory for the six-month-old government of Prime Minister Ciriaco de Mita. It is seen by most observers as the first crucial step in bringing both political stability and financial discipline to a country that has hopscotched through 48 different governments and countless economic crises in the postwar period.

Ironically, the debate and vote over the measure - whether to abandon secret balloting on financial and budgetary matters - was almost just another episode in the political frustrations Italy has endured during the last 40 years.

In what was also deemed a vote of confidence for the prime minister, the reform measure sponsored by Mr. de Mita's government won with only seven votes to spare.

It was apparently the last chance for party turncoats - know here as franchi tiratori, or snipers - to bring down the government under the camouflage of the secret ballot.

The arithmetic last week showed that more than 50 members of de Mita's own Christian Democratic party voted against the issue.

In fact, the snipers - who earned the nickname for spouting the party line in public and then entering the chamber only to vote with the opposition - have often lurked within the ranks of the Christian Democrats.

This party has led or been part of each of the coalition governments since the end of World War II. Snipers' settling personal and factional scores has contributed to this high turnover of governments.

Greater party discipline and governmental stability are the most obvious outcome of last week's vote. But it is also welcome news to the many analysts here who consider Italy's bloated and inefficient public sector as the major threat to the country's success after 1992. Western Europe hopes to achieve economic integration by 1992, and thereby become an economic superpower.

The government's budget deficit, for instance, is running at 98 percent of gross domestic product (the US deficit is less than 40 percent of GDP) largely because snipers can vote for local pork-barrel projects instead of sticking to the coalition's austerity guidelines.

``Banking, transportation, and health are all protected by the government and will have to be reshaped,'' says economist Carlo Scognamiglio, rector of the Libera Universita Internazionale degli Studi Sociali in Rome.

In 1992, when efficient German and British giants will be free to enter Italian markets, less productive local institutions may be caught flat-footed, economists say.

In the meantime, the de Mita government appears to have legislated itself a lease on life to set these reforms into motion. De Mita may also be able to break the postwar record tenure of three years established by the Socialist Bettino Craxi, who controlled the snipers only through his reportedly Machiavellian ways.

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