This could be a landmark year in the nearly four decades of Italy's postwar domestic politics.
It is increasingly likely that there will be a general election before the end of the year. And there is growing speculation that in the aftermath of that election, Italy could get a Socialist prime minister in the person of the ambitious and tactically brilliant Bettino Craxi.
That would take Italy down a similar path to that taken within the past 12 months by two other Mediterranean lands, France and Greece. They both now have leftist Socialist heads of government after decades of rule by parties of the right or right-of-center.
Italy's two major parties, the Christian Democrats (who have dominated every government since the end of World War II) and the Communists, are already maneuvering on the assumption that a general election is not far away.
It is against this background that the sudden resurgence of terrorist activity by the Red Brigades and parallel Italian extremist groups should be seen.
The Red Brigades are still holding Brig. Gen. James Dozier, the senior US NATO officer they kidnapped in Verona Dec. 17. And the Italian police are continuing their search for those involved in a successful prison breakout in Rovigo Jan. 3, in which four suspected women terrorists were sprung from jail by a commando-type squad.
Italian police also disclosed earlier this week an unsuccessful kidnap attempt on Dec. 16 of US Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilson Cooney in Vicenza, 40 miles east of Verona.
Incumbent Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini recognizes that at the moment he is fending off criticism by arguing that NATO, not the Italian government, was primarily responsible for General Dozier's security, while at the same time associating himself personally with the hunt for the terrorists.
The accession of Mr. Spadolini, a Republican, to the premiership last June was a sign that the postwar monopoly of the Christian Democrats in Italian politics was cracking - even though the latter hold a majority of the seats in Spadolini's coalition cabinet.
The presidency of the republic is simultaneously in the hands of a non-Christian Democrat: the unconventional but popular octogenarian Socialist, Sandro Pertini.
The Christian Democrats, although they got the biggest share of the vote (38. 3 percent) in the last general election in 1979, realize that these are straws in the wind putting them on the defensive. In addition, analysis of voting patterns shows that their support is becoming increasingly rural and southern and comes from declining demographic sections of the population.
As so often happens with parties long in power, the Christian Democrats are now perceived by much of the electorate as complacent, prone to scandal, and in the hands of an inner circle of ''old pros.'' To try to rectify this - and aware that an election might not be far away - the party held an unusual assembly at the end of November. It adopted a number of reforms aimed at convincing voters that it was rejuvenating itself by reducing the power of the bosses and making itself more democratic.
The Communists (who came second in the 1979 election with 30.4 percent of the vote) are also using the winter to reassert themselves as a lively and attractive force in the Italian electoral system.
This helps explain the vigor of their denunciation of events in Poland. On Dec. 29, they issued a statement condemning the Soviet Union's ''negative influence'' in Poland and castigating Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski for the military takeover there.
But Socialist leader Craxi is the man to watch in this unfolding drama. He and his supporters may be overestimating their potential in seeing him as Prime Minister after the next elections. The Italian Socialists (with only 9.8 percent of the vote in 1979) have a much narrower base than had the French and Greek Socialists before their electoral victories last year. Yet Mr. Craxi's ambition and tactical skills should not be underestimated.
His Socialists have seven seats in the present Spadolini Cabinet. This gives him the power, under certain circumstances, to bring the government down (by withdrawing Socialist support) and deciding the date of the next election.
When that election comes, the Christian Democrats and the Communists could still outpoll the Socialists, as in 1979. But if Christian Democrats and Communists ended up in a rough dead heat, Mr. Craxi could find himself the arbiter in the formation of the post-election cabinet. He could offer to join either of the two bigger parties in a coalition in return for the premiership. A Socialist-Communist coalition is therefore at least a hypothetical possibility.
To the Red Brigades, this would mean a Communist sellout to ''the system.'' It is conceivable that this prospect explains the internal debate apparently under way within the Italian terrorist network.
This debate would seem to be between two main camps. One supports past terrorist tactics of near-random assassination and kidnapping of only Italians, seemingly intended to reduce Italy to fear and anarchy. The other argues for a more calculated political input into choice of terrorist targets - exploiting in particular the current wave of anti-American, anti-NATO, antinuclear, and anti-multinational company sentiment in some segments of Italian and European opinion.