Italy, land of Pinocchio, comes to grips with reality

It is the year of Pinocchio in Italy, a celebration to honor the 100th anniversary of the mischievous wooden boy with the extending nose whose enchanting adventures are read throughout the world.

It is also a year marked by more sophisticated tributes to the 300th anniversary of Bernini, the sculptor- artist whose baroque fountains and figures helped mold Rome's image.

In this sun-drenched country famous for its gondolas and grapes, relaxed life style, and ancient ruins, there always seems something to celebrate.

Yet the events of the past 12 months indicate otherwise, for it has been a period of modern history unmatched in personal agonies and political turmoil, a combination of crises that have begun to trigger speculation that Italy has reached a turning point. Or rather, hasm to.

It began with the bombing of the Bologna train station one year ago this week , one of the worst terrorist attacks in postwar Europe. A right-wing group, the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, claimed responsibility for the 85 deaths and 200 injured, but one year later, no one has been charged with planting the explosives in a crowded waiting room.

Then came the collapse of the 39th government in September, in a typically Italian way. Minutes after a vote of confidence supporting Prime Minister Francisco Cossiga, parliament then -- by one vote -- defeated his crucial economic austerity program. It amounted to a no- confidence vote . . . and out Cossiga went.

An earthquake ripped through the poverty-stricken south in November, killing more than 2,700 and leaving 250,000 homeless. The shudders carried on for months because of the subsequent corruption and reported Mafia meddling with emergency relief.

At the end of 1980, the lira began a dramatic downward plunge that still has not bottomed out, so far losing 30 percent of its value against the dollar. With inflation at 20 percent -- consistently the highest in Europe over the past two years -- and unemployment hovering at 18 percent, a swelling balance-of-payments deficit, and a spate of labor strikes, including even the horse and buggy drivers in Rome, Italy's economic situation neared crisis proportions.

This year, the attack on Pope John Paul II made the biggest headlines. Then, in a three-day blitz, an Italian court predictably sentenced his mysterious Turkish assailant, Mehmet Ali Agca, to life imprisonment, but left Italians aghast at the issues left unanswered: the motive, and Agca's possible outside support.

Yet more important to the average Italian has been the P-2 scandal, which made Watergate look tame and rocked a nation long-toughened to Machiavellian intrigue. Almost 1,000 key government (up to Cabinet level), military, and business leaders were linked with a secret Masonic lodge charged with criminal and subversive activities, and with forming a "state within a state."

And, so, yet another government fell. On the surface, the resultant changes were historic. The scandal ended up by breaking the 35-year streak of Christian Democrat leadership.

Giovanni Spadolini, from the little-heard-of Republican Party, ended the 33 -day crisis by becoming prime minister of a new five-party coalition in June. It is one of the quirks of the Italian political system that a party with only 3 percent of the support in parliament can lead the government.

All but one of the coalition parties has more representation than the Republicans. This is one of the reasons that few political observers here feel the 41st government is any more permanent than those that preceded it, despite Mr. Spadolini's reputation for decisiveness.

The bottom line is that Prime Minister Spadolini is in charge in name only.

The majority of his 28-member Cabinet is still Christian Democrat. Some of the portfolios, like foreign affairs and internal affairs, never even changed hands. And the traditional Christian Democratic platform of centrist domestic policies and a pro-Atlantic foreign allegiance have continued -- as has the squabbling among Italy's diverse and divided political parties.

Parliament adjourned July 30 for the traditional August break, but without reaching the badly needed agreement with the country's three trade union federations on ways of cutting inflation. The unions are crucial to the government's economic program because of the "scala mobile," which adjusts labor's wages according to the inflation rate.

The failure was symbolic of many of Italy's current woes: Everyone seems to recognize the problems, but no one seems able to agree on solutions, whether the issue is terrorism, the handling of earthquake relief, inflation, or political stability.

During the past 12 months, the proud bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius has also become a victim, hauled down from its pedestal on the Campidoglio after 400 years as a landmark of Rome. Like the society the statue represents, it was vulnerable, corroded by the by- products of modern life. The statue is scheduled to undergo several years of restoration.

Italians may care more about the loss of Marcus Aurelius than the machinations of their government: The mentality of city-states still permeates public attitudes in Italy which was united as a nation by King Victor Emmanuel only in 1870. An Italian is a Bolognese or Roman or Venetian or Napolitano first, each lacking the sense of nationalism of their European neighbors.

Italians do not seem to care specifically about a strong national government, although they do care about an end to corruption, inefficiency, lawlessness, and the kind of situation exemplified by the fact that 2nd century ruins are often in better shape than 20th century plumbing in public facilities.

Italians are survivors, tolerant by temperament. The country and the culture and the climate have so much to offer that the people usually weather their crises well. They do not become overly alarmed by the daily TV newscasts that chronicle Mafia shootouts in the south; marathon strikes at the largest private industry, Turin's Fiat factory; the closing of the stock market for three days last month -- the first time since 1917 -- when panic selling led prices to plummet 40 percent; or the price of gas reaching $3 per gallon.

But even in Italy there is a saturation point.

A recent opinion poll by DOXA Survey showed that parties and politicians head the list of what the public feels is wrong with Italy. Eighty percent of those polled said the state was doing badly, and 85 percent thought ministers were performing poorly, vs, a mere 3 percent who felt Cabinet officials were serious and honest.

Events of the past year are at least partially responsible for this dire consensus -- and the growing feeling that an alternative is needed. The change in France, where Francois Mitterrand's Socialists wrested control of the government after long domination by the Gaullists, did not go unnoticed in Italy.

Like France, the search in Italy for a viable alternative, at this point, also seems to lead to the Socialists. There is no conservative party strong enough. The center now has the image of a worn-out shoe. And the Communists represent too radical a change on a national scale, despite their dominance of councils in most major cities.

There are already some signs that the Socialists are emerging as the power of the future.

In regional elections last month, involving one-quarter of the electorate, the Socialists were the only ones to make gains, albeit small. And in a five-part referendum in May, involving moral-toned issues such as gun control and abortion, the Socialists' positions generally won, the church-backed Christian Democrats lost on every count. Both votes indicated a trend, a willingness to break away from the expected.

More importantly, the Socialists now appear to hold the trump card in the game of political maneuvering. Led by savvy and ambitious Bettino Craxi, the party forced the previous government to resign when it refused to support its coalition partner's proposed solutions to the P-2 scandal. Mr. Craxi did, however, agree to support Mr. Spadolini in a new coalition, which may be the prime reason the Republicans head the conference table now at Chigi Palace.

Since no party has a majority in Italy, any coalition will have to include either the Communists -- the second largest party with 30 percent support and now the main opposition force -- or the Socialists, third largest with 10 percent.

Mr. Craxi has never denied that he is after the premiership, like Mitterrand in France. But he knows that there is work to be done within his party and among the electorate before he makes his play.

He has made major headway from within at a party congress in April, solidifying his backing against the left- wing Marxist faction of his party and winning endorsement for his gradualist program of proposed changess -- which make him more palatable both at home and among Western allies, who fear a swing to the left in Europe.

The Socialists' victory in France this summer is, in fact, not comparable to the fertile Italian situation, except in the psychology of politics. Italians are neither precedent-setters nor imitators, but they do have an intra-Europe sense of timing and events. It other words, the victory of Mr. Mitterrand -- and the change he represented -- makes Mr. Craxi's Socialists, and the implied shift, seem less far-fetched.

Like France, it will probably take a national election to force the issue to a head. The Christian Democrats would be loath to see the Socialists in power without one, at the same time fearful of what the outcome might be. The fact that most here felt an election would have been called if Spadolini had been unable to form a government in June indicates how strong sentiment is for a test of public support.

Outsiders, foreign political writers, and many Western diplomats seem to agree that something is in the air, inevitably, if for no other reason than that Italy, literally, cannot afforc to continue on its current course.

The economic miracle ran out of steam a decade ago, and a new political direction is called for to haul the country out of the quagmire situation that often makes Italy seem a parody of itself.

Like the Marcus Aurelius statue, it may take a few years to complete. And a shift to the left may lead to the ringing of alarm bells among Italy's allies, as it did in France. But it should not, for the glory of Bernini and the fantasy of Pinocchio are too ingrained in the Italian spirit to mean that anything will change too much.

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