Italy's Elections

LIKE someone stepping up to a microphone and tapping it to see if it is ``open,'' Italian voters on Sunday finished tapping the open ``mike'' of direct mayoral elections for the first time. So far, it works.

The runoff elections represent an early test of political reforms stemming from nearly two years of scandal. More than 3,000 business leaders and politicians from the Christian Democratic and Socialist Parties have been implicated in long-standing bribery schemes involving government contracts. During the first round of balloting last month, these two parties took heavy losses; the Christian Democrats polled less than 10 percent of the vote. This left voters with something they haven't had much of: a choice - albeit stark - between a ``progressive'' coalition led by the Democratic Party of the Left (formerly the Communist Party) and either the ``conservative'' Italian Social Movement, a neo-Fascist party, or the more regional Northern League.

That the Democratic Party of the Left or candidates it supported won the runoffs is encouraging: A majority of voters rejected the extreme positions offered by the Italian Social Movement and the separatist notions of the Northern League. The Italian Social Movement remains the single largest party in some cities. But the Democratic Party of the Left's readiness to form coalitions or support other candidates suggests a more pragmatic approach to governing.

Party leaders already are setting their sights on upcoming parliamentary elections and a possible prime ministership. How well the winners perform in office, however, will speak more about a readiness to govern than will the jockeying now under way. The election, perhaps in March, will involve all of Italy's 40 million voters. The country then will move from testing the mike to a full-throated announcement about its direction.

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