A new political movement is joining the crowded ranks of Italian political parties in the campaign for the June 26-27 general elections and threatens to cause the first major voting shift in postwar Italy.
The movement, which cuts across ideological lines, consists of citizens who have decided to cast blank ballots or even not bother to go to the polls.
The phenomenon is unprecedented in a country where political fervor usually produces one of the highest voter turnouts in the world, a 92.8 percent average in the eight general elections since 1948.
The latest opinion polls estimate that those who fail to vote or cast a ''none of the above'' ballot will at least exceed 10 percent and may go as high as 20 percent. That would make it equivalent to the third largest party, after the Christian Democrats and Communists.
Disaffection for the traditional political parties is also reflected in the large and unprecedented number of undecided voters: 56 percent, according to a Makno Institute poll just three weeks before the elections.
This new trend runs counter to 35 years of consistent voting, which has seen numerous different governments but few real changes in their political makeup, a unique situation in a Western democracy.
Observers agree it is still difficult to predict the consequences and which party will pay the highest price for what has been dubbed ''the voters' rebellion.'' All the major political parties have condemned the movement and are making an all-out effort to woo the voters back to the polls.
Even the Roman Catholic Church has voiced concern that the new sentiment could jeopardize the democratic system. In a statement June 3, the National Bishops Conference appealed to the Italian electorate to fulfill its civic obligations. ''The right and duty to vote in elections cannot be avoided by any form of disaffection and must promote the common good,'' it said.
Many political observers pin responsibility for the widening credibility and communication gap between the parties and society on a decades-old patronage system that has run amok in the last few years.
''The political parties have occupied all the institutions,'' says political scientist Giorgio Galli. Forty-three revolving-door governments in 37 years, with an average life span of six to nine months, have bolstered the patronage system at the expense of state authority.
Despite the world recession, Italian governments have been unique in doing almost nothing to cut domestic spending, since any belt-tightening measure runs counter to some party's interest groups. The results are a colossal public-sector deficit (which last year was equal to 15.6 percent of GNP, compared to 3 or 4 percent in most industrial countries), and inflation running at the record rate of 16 percent.
The state foots a several billion dollar bill for crisis-ridden public-sector companies. It doles out disability pensions to 5 million people, one-fourth the labor force. The highest labor costs in the West are compensated by generous tax breaks for industry. Some 40 percent of public spending is earmarked for social programs, while tax evasion is the most widespread in Western Europe.
The swollen deficits are seen as resulting from a lack of political alternatives that has enabled the consistently ruling Christian Democrats (38 percent in the last elections) and their coalition partners to strike compromises with all factions of society. Without the salutary effect of genuine rotation of political rule, the parties have also extended their power into areas that in other countries are immune to factional politics.
The most blatant example of intrusion is known as ''lottizzazione'' (allotment), the practice through which the parties divide up the spoils of the state. All the executives of state-owned industries and state-owned banks - almost half of the total - and administrators in the civil service are appointed according to a quota system reflecting the power of the ruling parties.
This system has become increasingly institutionalized and has extended its tentacles to include journalists of the state-owned television networks, the directors of regionally run theaters, as well as the administrators of the 674 agencies of the National Health Service.
''The phenomenon has never been so pervasive,'' Galli observes. ''Although the biggest slices of the pie belong to the Christian Democrats and Socialists ( 10 percent in Parliament), the opposition Communists (with 30 percent) have started to increase their share.''
Along with a steady decline in managerial professionalism, one of the worst effects of parceling out appointments among the parties has been an increase in corruption. As sociologist Franco Ferraroti observes, ''Locked in this game of reciprocal favors and compromises, the parties are losing contact with society.''
Italians have reacted to the passivity of their patronage-ridden government with what Giuseppe de Rita, director of the Rome-based think tank, Censis, calls a ''silent revolution'': a flourishing underground economy. This economy, estimated at 30 percent of gross national product, employs between 2 million and 6 million workers.
De Rita contends that a less ideologically motivated society is emerging. ''Italians have rediscovered a village spirit in which community solidarity is of primary importance. This has weakened the power of the parties and trade unions, and problems are resolved without fanfare at the local level.''
The political parties seems to have been caught by surprise by the flight into the private and local spheres.
In a hasty effort to refurbish their parties, many have filled their slates with prominent figures of the business, artistic, musical, film, and literary worlds. Worn-out slogans have been dusted off. The Communist Party has charged big industry with conspiring against democracy and is belatedly trying to attract the youth vote by raising the issue of deployment of NATO missiles in Sicily later this year.
But so far, politicians on the hustings have been confronted with an unprecedented lack of interest in what is developing as Italy's most lackluster election campaign.