'Perils of Pauline' (Italian style)

Another Italian government crisis has come and gone. Like the old ''Perils of Pauline'' serial, this latest episode, the 42nd in the long postwar saga, provided some suspenseful moments but produced no novel or shocking surprises. The premiership is again in Christian Democratic hands where it seems to belong almost by providential fiat.

Moreover, it went back to the indestructible elder statesman Amintore Fanfani who first acceded to that post in January 1954, during the Eisenhower administration. In reconciling the Christian Democratic-Socialist policy differences which caused Premier Spadolini's fall, Fanfani solved the urgent problem of providing the country with a government and an austere monetary and fiscal program to tackle the worrisome economic crisis.

Even allowing for the comforting thought that things Italian miraculously turn out to be less bleak than they are generally predicted, Italy still faces, like other industrialized countries, a serious recession (near zero growth), high unemployment (10 percent of the workforce), hyperinflation (currently better than 16 percent), and skyrocketing budget deficits which amount to 15 percent of the official GNP. Official statistics, however, understate the contribution of Italy's vibrant ''underground'' economy which is variously estimated to provide an additional 20 to 25 percent of the official GNP, currently $350 billion. This ''oversight,'' in turn, may explain why frequent predictions of economic collapse never materialize.

The resolution of the government crisis is likely to provide only a temporary respite to the troubled Christian Democratic-Socialist partnership. For the controversy between the two parties transcends policy and ideological differences and centers on divergent political strategies and the mutual frustrations and suspicions that the pursuit of those strategies invariably generates.

The Socialists and their secretary general, Bettino Craxi, are attempting to exploit their pivotal position in Parliament to wrest control of the premiership as a first step toward an eventual challenge of Christian Democratic preeminence in Italian politics. With only 10 percent of the vote, however, their political muscle and electoral base have proven insufficient to sway the Christian Democrats who, even after 40 years of uninterrupted power, still control 42 percent of the parliamentary seats.

To enhance their leverage and the credibility of their strategy, the Socialists must either enlist the backing of the small ''lay'' parties (Social Democrats, Liberals, and Republicans); or force early general elections in hopes of gaining votes and bargaining power; or, preferably, both. So far, they have done neither.

The Christian Democrats, fearful that the Socialists might eventually use the premiership to pole-vault into an alliance with the Communists which would leave them out in the cold, have successfully foiled Socialist plans and timetable. On four different occasions since 1979, they frustrated Socialist efforts either to gain the premiership or force early elections. They are prepared to assure the Socialists a long-term government partnership, but under Christian Democratic not Socialist leadership.

Repeated failure to show measurable progress in pursuit of his objectives may not only tarnish Craxi's image but also cause second thoughts within the party over the wisdom of the strategy itself. Craxi's left-wing rivals are already pressing for a return to the old ''socialist alternative'' policy which envisages a government partnership with the Communists. So long as the Communists spurned a Socialist alliance and sought instead their own power-sharing accord with the Christian Democrats via the famous ''historic compromise,'' Craxi had little trouble keeping his rivals in line with his strategy. However, now that the Communists have shelved their ''compromise'' policy in favor of a ''democratic alternative'' to the Christian Democrats - a course which does not differ much from the old Socialist policy - Craxi is likely to find it more difficult to resist internal demands for a change in direction.

Socialist differences with the Christian Democrats over economic policies have already reemerged and are likely to escalate as the general elections, due in 1984, approach. Fears of being stuck with unpopular government economic policies coupled with internal party pressures may encourage Craxi to bring down Fanfani in hopes of triggering early elections this year. He may reason that a respectable electoral performance would at least strengthen his hand vis-a-vis his rivals if not actually land him in the premiership, the objective he has been stubbornly pursuing since 1979.

Recent polls appear to favor the Socialists as do the results of scattered local elections that have taken place during the last couple of years. Similar favorable omens in the past, however, have rarely materialized in subsequent national tests. On the contrary, a good performance in local contests has almost invariably been followed by a disappointing verdict in the general elections.

On the basis of past experience, therefore, early elections would appear to hold more risks than opportunities for the Socialists. A poor electoral showing could not only cost Craxi his job but also put an end to Socialist governmental collaboration with the Christian Democrats, ushering in a period of instability which could only be resolved by a major political realignment.

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