ROME — THE caller put on hold at Italy's Communist Party headquarters is treated to an electronic version of the Beatles' ``Yesterday.'' It's a strangely nostalgic ballad for a political party that is changing its name, its symbols, and working seriously toward a future in which for the first time it might participate in Italy's national government.
If that happens - if Italy finally achieves the kind of alternating governance that is a benchmark of other European democracies - then the political system that Italy has lived with, or labored under, for more than 40 years will never be the same.
Although few political observers expect to see Communists (or former Communists) in the government soon, there's no doubting that this is the goal the party's majority, led by Achille Occhetto, is working for.
At the party's 19th congress in March, Mr. Occhetto said it was long-held hard-line ideology that had kept Italy's second-largest party out of government, thus denying the country a healthy rotation between government and opposition parties.
More recently, reformist Giorgio Napolitano, explaining the party's condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and support for United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Gulf, said, ``Our development of a credible position on foreign affairs, not propagandistic in the old manner, and not a minority view, is one of the fundamental conditions for affirming our new party as a governing force.''
In 1988, the party had already voted out democratic centralism and other tenets of communism. But it was at last March's party congress that the Communist Party name was laid to rest, replaced by La Cosa (``The Thing''), until a new name is chosen this year.
Voting by 1.3 million party activists in 10,000 sections across the country won't be complete until Jan. 29, but already the result is apparent, says Piero Fassino, director of the party's political commission.
``It will be the PDS, or Democratic Party of the Left,'' says Mr. Fassino, ``and its symbol will be a tree.''
Perhaps to appease the solid one-third of party militants who oppose the name change and the swing toward social democratic politics, the tree includes a small medallion at its roots encircling the old symbols of the hammer and sickle.
A testing of Italy's rejigged political puzzle - the appeal of a transformed Communist Party and its effect on other political parties - could come as early as the spring, political observers here say.
Although local elections are set for May, Fassino says national legislative elections could come earlier than the anticipated spring 1992 date if, as many expect, the current government collapses before then.