Political Revenge in Italy

Breakthrough elections anticipate lasting but daunting reform

ON Dec. 5, Italians voting in a second round of local elections advanced a revolution that is permanently changing the face of Italy's politics. In a cathartic process, a recession-plagued citizenry's resentment of the political class has turned into anger after revelations of shameless corruption on the part of the old political elite. Given a chance to throw the bums out, Italians are doing so with gusto.

For the first time, voters cast ballots directly for mayors in Naples, Palermo, Rome, Trieste, Genoa, and hundreds of smaller communities. Their votes have confirmed the imminent passing of the old political order. The national parliamentary elections to be held early next year are likely to end the dominance of the Christian Democratic Party and many of the centrist forces with which it shared the spoils of uninterrupted postwar rule. In its place, an unprecedented ``bipartisan'' system shaped in part by a new, two-ballot electoral process appears to be emerging in which voters can choose between clear alternatives.

New forces or parties long excluded from government dominated these elections. In only one, Palermo's, did a candidate win an outright majority and thus avert a runoff election. Leoluco Orlando, with his anti-Mafia La Rete party, capitalized on Sicilian fatigue with the old parties that had extended protection to the Cosa Nostra, pilfered public money, and neglected the city's social infrastructure.

Elsewhere, first-round elections held last month eliminated the once-dominant forces of government from contention. In the northern cities of Trieste, Venice, and Genoa, the second round elections pitted a coalition of leftist forces centered around the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), a social democratic party that has grown out of the old Italian Communist Party, against the neo-right wing Northern League. (The League advocates the division of Italy into separate nations. But its leader, Umberto Bossi, has recently called for the creation of three republics within a federated Italy, characterized by a reduced bureaucracy.) In all these cities, however, leftist coalitions won in the second round, electing mayors and city council majorities.

Left-wing forces in Rome and Naples also were victorious. In these cities, their runoff opponent was the Italian Social Movement (MSI), an old nationalist-fascist party that has historically been strong in the south. The MSI benefited from many who were convinced that the PDS is a communist front; yet such logic failed to convince the majority. In Rome, Francesco Rutelli, an environmentalist with PDS backing, won 53.1 percent of the vote against MSI's party secretary Gianfranco Fini. In Naples, dyed-in-the-wool fascists had the opportunity to mark an ``X'' next to the name Mussolini (Alesandra); nonetheless, the left candidate, Antonio Bassolino, won with 55.8 percent of the vote.

As much as the elections mark the passing of the old regime, they also suggest that the new political climate is polarized. The fundamental political choice once lay between a bland center that offered an ever more corrupt stability and a Communist Party that only gradually retreated from its Stalinist past. Invariably that bland center prevailed. But its implosion, precipitated by mismanagement and corruption, as well as by the Soviet Union's collapse and the creation of a viable social-democratic alternative, has transformed the political map.

The great hope for the next system is that future governments will enjoy public mandates on clearly defined platforms. The great concern is that both the League and the MSI harbor revolutionary ambitions and are not viable options for most voters. Some analysts say that Italy now needs a modern, moderate conservative force, and many are looking to Mario Segni, a former Christian Democrat untainted by scandal, to build it.

The results of the Dec. 5 runoff elections are significant in other ways. That neither the regionalist League nor the hyper-nationalist MSI won in any large city in this latest round has forestalled a struggle pitting a wealthy separatist north against an impoverished nationalist south. The victorious left-wing forces are intent on ameliorating the conditions that have nurtured the separatist movements rather than cede to the facile temptation of national division. Yet even for the left, decentralization remains an important priority, although as a way to save, not break apart the country.

Economic revival and bureaucratic reform remain the greatest challenges for Italy's next government. Paring away the bureaucracy and privatizing state-owned firms calls for great sacrifice and contradicts the left's dogged defense of the powerful union movement. Acting quickly on this front might foment paralyzing strikes and civil disorder.

The public mandate on this central point is also ambiguous. Many voters are comforted by the notion of the state as an employer of last resort but dissatisfied with its inefficiency. If the left prevails in national elections early next year, its leaders are likely to argue that bureaucratic reform can proceed without layoffs; their first strategy will be to infuse the state with an ethic of public service. But this tactic is only a stopgap.

The bureaucracy is populated by clients of the old regime, and its structure is chaotic and antiquated; it will take more than prodding to infuse its ranks with an enlightened culture of public service. Yet the old patrons are rapidly vanishing, and the national fiscal crisis is narrowing the options for any government. Italy's partners in Europe are demanding that the government slash subsidies to publicly owned firms and reduce the debt, which now exceeds GNP. Bureaucratic practices and structures are thus bound to change, although not with the speed many optimists expect.

There is a final irony in these election results. For years American policymakers championed the Christian Democratic Party, which presidents from Truman to Bush viewed as an anticommunist bulwark. The Clinton administration may soon be dealing with the social-democratic PDS. That the two countries would maintain cordial relations in that event would provide further proof of the degree to which US perspectives on Europe have evolved in the post-cold war, and how far the former Communists have come in embracing both the form and substance of democracy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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