ITALY'S constant merry-go-round of postwar prime ministers has masked an important fact: the relative stability of the country, its policies, and the political system.
This stability, in fact, has evolved over the years into a political gridlock caused by the lack of consensus in Italian society. Several groups of extremists have been able to exploit the resulting government weakness and corruption, including terrorist fascists, the terrorist Red Brigades, and Sicily's Mafia.
The Mafia showed again last weekend that it considers itself above the Italian state with the gruesome assassination in Palermo of Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three bodyguards. Mr. Falcone succeeded in sending several hundred Mafiosi to prison while a judge in Sicily in the late 1980s. Falcone, who last year took up an important position in the Justice Ministry in Rome, was reported by Italian television to be investigating bribery of public officials in Milan. He had lived under death threats for ye ars. But the precision timing of the bomb blast that blew up his motorcade suggests that Mafia operatives have penetrated Italian security services.
Many in Italy believe the Mafia was taking advantage of the governmental vacuum created by recent inconclusive parliamentary elections and the subsequent resignation of President Francesco Cossiga. Public outrage over the killings pressured parliamentarians in Rome to finally elect a president of the republic after 15 fruitless ballots. Elder statesman Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, a Christian Democrat with a reputation for integrity and religious devoutness, has been hailed by many as the right man for a hard j ob.
Traditionally a figurehead, the president must coax warring political parties into a coalition government with a tough enough program to go after the Mafia and other criminal groups, and to address the continuing socio-economic disparities between the rich north and the poor south.
But Italy faces another challenge: If the Mafia and other terrorist groups have declared war on the state, it is only a reflection of the constant war on state authority carried on by average Italians every day of the week.
Italy is an ancient nation, but a young state. Its proud regions and city-states were not united until 1870. Many Italians see the state as an enemy to be outwitted, rather than as a protector and defender of their civic rights. Tax evasion, an underground economy, and political corruption are common. Loyalty begins with the family, then one's city, then region, and often the church. The Italian state is usually last.
If Italians now demand, rightly, that the state assert itself against the Mafia, they must also decide once and for all that Italy is an idea worth defending.