Soon the curtain will rise once more on Europe's longest-running political melodrama, and Italy will have its 44th postwar government. Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, untested in the rigors of government office, will be afforded the chance to make his much awaited and stubbornly sought debut in the premier role. The rest of the cast will be pretty much as before, with the long-ruling Christian Democrats retaining the lion's share of the government's leading parts and policy lines. Italy's friends will marvel and rejoice at the Italians' ability to keep their show on the road despite the electoral earthquake which recently pulverized their political landscape. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that it's politics as usual in Italy.
The good news, of course, is that June's electoral shocks have, in the short run, changed little or nothing. The bad news is that they may, in fact, have changed everything.
Ever since their triumph over the Communist/Socialist Popular Democratic Front in 1948, Italy's ruling Christian Democrats had gone to the polls secure in the knowledge that, win or lose, they could always rely not only on junior partners to provide support for their coalition governments but on a Communist opposition which was more interested in trying to join them than to replace them in power. This enviable state of affairs produced Italy's postwar consensus politics and with it political stability - as distinguished from its notorious governmental instability.
It is not the purpose here to examine the historical, political, cultural, and psychological factors that dictated consensus politics as practiced by the Christian Democrats and acquiesced to by the Communists. Suffice it to say that for most of the postwar period these two parties accepted and acted on the premise that the country could not be governed with ''51 percent of the vote,'' i.e., with the narrow majorities that typically rule in nearly all other democratic systems.
Apparently convinced that Italians were ready and anxious for a change, the Christian Democrats as well as the Communists went into the June elections at arm's length both from each other and from consensus politics. Each party declared itself politically incompatible with the other and willing and even eager to govern with a ''51 percent majority'' together with like-thinking, compatible allies. The Socialists, caught in the Christian Democratic-Communist whipsaw, appealed to disgruntled voters of both parties in an effort to improve their post-electoral bargaining position vis-a-vis both.
The response of the electorate leads to the inescapable conclusion that the new strategies for ''change'' proposed and pursued by the three parties may not have been sufficiently credible to those who welcomed them but were all too credible to those who had reasons to fear them. The Christian Democrats were handed their worst defeat in 30 years and dropped to a historic electoral low barely ahead of the Communists, who, however, not only failed to take advantage of the Christian Democratic debacle, but suffered slight losses themselves. The Socialists' modest performance looks good only because that of the Christian Democrats looks and is so awful.
The rush is now on, both here and in Italy, to put the best face on the Christian Democratic wreckage. After all, so the argument goes, the combined parliamentary strength of the Christian Democrats and their traditional Socialist, Social Democratic, Republican and Liberal government partners is practically the same as before, and surely Italy's next government will differ little, if any, from its recent predecessors, either in composition or in domestic and foreign policies. And, anyway, aren't the Italians past masters at turning adversity and humiliating defeats into splendid victories?
Yes, indeed. That's the good news, or is it? Now for the bad news. True enough, their junior government partners won back nearly all the parliamentary seats the Christian Democrats lost. And there is the rub! For the massive redistribution of seats away from the Christian Democrats in favor of the smaller parties makes it possible for the Communists to compete on an equal basis for the support of those parties. Lest it be forgotten, eight of Italy's ten largest cities (including Rome, Milan, Naples, Turin, and Genoa - not to speak of hundreds of smaller centers) are ruled by Communist/Socialist administrations which frequently include the Social Democrats and the Republicans as well.
For the first time, the Communist opposition can put together majorities in both houses of parliament with those very same parties - provided, of course, it can win them away from the Christian Democrats. In short, there is now a numerical parliamentary majority for the Communists' recently unveiled proposal for the creation of a leftist ''democratic alternative'' government to Christian Democratic rule.
Thus far, all of the Communists' potential allies have rejected it as premature and lacking the necessary ''political conditions.'' The ''alternative'' option is there, however, and so are the numbers for its realization if and when the Socialists and others decide to exercise it. Its very availability is bound to fuel constant suspicions, divisions, and recriminations within any coalition government that is likely to be formed now and in the foreseeable future.
Italy appears to be embarked on a historic shift from consensus to confrontation politics without either the cultural foundations or the institutional and electoral mechanisms that such a momentous political innovation would seem to require. That's the bad news.
Many hope that from the upsets of June 26-27, Italians will find the strength and determination to arm themselves with the necessary institutional tools to stop and reverse the pulverization of their body politic. If so, that would not be such bad news.