Cossiga fights to stay on top as Venice summits near

Italian Prime Minister Francesco Cossiga is walking his second and toughest political calvary -- a stinging pre-election attack by the country's Communists that at the very least will leave his fledgling government battered and embarrased when Italy hosts two major international summits this month.

Italy's Communist Party -- the largest in the West -- on June 2 demanded a full-scale parliamentary debate on an accusation Mr. Cossiga aided the flight of the terrorist son of Carlo Donat-Cattin, deputy secretary of Mr. Cossiga's ruling Christian Democrats.

Mr. Cossiga has not been buffeted as fiercely by Italy's often unpredictable political winds since the 54 days of crisis that framed the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro in 1978. Mr. Cossiga, who was then interior minister, resigned the day after Mr. Moro's body was found.

Mr. cossiga's latest crisi began when Roberto Sandolo, a jailed terrorist, told police Mr. Cossiga had tipped off Mr. Donat-Cattin that his son Marco, a fugitive member of the leftist Front Line terrorist group and a childhood friend of Mr. Sandolo, was about to be arrested. Mr. Donat-Cattin resigned over the matter on May 31.

On the same day a 20-member parliamentary committee cleared Mr. Cossiga of any wrongdoing after grilling him for three hours on the subject. But the committee's 11-9 vote in favor of Mr. Cossiga fell story of the 16 votes needed to bury the issue.

Mr. Cossiga's vehement denials of the accusation have not daunted Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer's drive to gather the 318 parliamentary signatures needed to begin the open debate. His party's success is almost certain because it alone controls 285 of parliament's 925 seats.

Parliamentary debate on the accusation could result in Mr. Cossiga facing formal charges before Italy's Constitutional Court, the nation's highest judicial forum, but the probability is considered very unlikely.

The timing of the bitter attack raised speculation that its primary, and perhaps sole, purpose is to hurt the Christian Democrats in municipal and regional elections June 8 and 9.

The Communists have asked the voters to scrutinize the Christian Democrats' ability to fight terrorism in light of the Donat-Cattin affair and the Christian Democrats have accused the Communists of fomenting nothing more than a well-timed, opportunistic smear campaign that could embarass Italy on the eve of two major Venice summits.

European Community leaders meet in Venice June 12 and 13 and leaders of major industrial nations, including President Carter, meet there June 22 and 23. If Mr. Cossiga were forced to resign or if one coalition party collapses his government, Italy would only have representatives of an interim government at the summits. Mr. Cossiga, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Parliament, would be hurled into the embarrassing position of hosting summits in a country of which he would only be a temporary leader.

Having created an uproar over the affair, the Communists will be constricted to making good on threats to begin the debate. Even if there are no election setbacks, a parliamentary maneuver involving just 50 votes could throw the matter back to a committee that would have four months to reach a decision.

But the affair could still topple Mr. Cossiga's two-month-old government if the Socialists or Republicans, who are part of the coalition, decide to withdraw their support.

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