The sudden loss of Italy's Enrico Berlinguer, secretary since 1972 of the largest communist party in the West, has thrust the party into political difficulties as well as heartfelt grief.
Sympathy and consternation has swept through political circles in Italy and abroad for the loss of a dedicated leader who commanded respect both from his followers and opponents. Mr. Berlinguer collapsed last Thursday night while speaking at a European election campaign rally in Padua in northern Italy.
The task Mr. Berlinguer was tackling in his all-out campaign for the European parliamentary elections, and which now faces his successor, is the overwhelming one of reestablishing the political identity of a party already beset by problems. Not the least of its problems is Prime Minister Bettino Craxi's anti-inflation package. The package includes measures to reduce labor costs by modifying the Italian workers' inflation-indexed salary scale by reducing yearly wage increases.
The Italian Communists' continual parliamentary obstruction of this bill in defense of workers' wage packets finally failed, and ironically the Senate approved the bill the night after Berlinguer's collapse.
Berlinguer's style of leadership over the last 10 years brought Italy's Communist Party (PCI) away from the uncompromising policies of the Soviet-guided line that characterized Italy's post-war communism, toward a more liberal and open political stance. This led to the possibility of a coalition with the ruling Christian Democratic government in the early '70s.
Known as the compromesso storico (historic compromise), it won Berlinguer's party both enemies from the hard-line party rank and file, as well as recognition in and outside of Italy.
Until shortly after the murder of Christian Democrat parliamentary leader Aldo Moro (one of the main instigators of the compromesso storico) the PCI continued on its conciliatory Eurocommunist path and away from Soviet paternalism. This included giving extra-government support to a Christian Democrat-led coalition under Giulio Andreotti.
Since 1980, the fall of Andreotti's coalition and the subsequent succession of a five-party coalition led first by Republican Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini, then Socialist Bettino Craxi, the PCI has lost some of its credibility - and votes.
In his effort to achieve political autonomy for his party, answerable to neither of the two superpowers, Berlinguer strove for compromise by espousing, for example, the antimissile peace cause without repudiating NATO protection. On home ground, he tried to bridge the gap between Roman Catholicism and Marxism. Inevitably, however, he fell into the pitfall of disillusioning his own worker followers and losing prospective voters.
The political elections of 1979 showed returns for the Communist Party of 30. 3 percent, already far lower than the 34 percent they won in 1976, while last year's general elections showed a further loss with PCI returns at 29.9 percent.
The question now of who will lead the party is an open one. A party communique released Saturday stated: ''The party is used to carrying out its work collegially.''
Press reports, however, were already listing possible successors. The formal leader of the party's control commission (which has supervisory rather than decisionmaking powers), is Alessandro Natta, a close follower of Berlinguer, whose leadership is expected to last only until such time as the Central Committee chooses a definitive successor.
Among the possible future leaders, speculation puts Alfredo Reichlin as an able follower of Berlinguer's centrist line. Mr. Reichlin was a militant communist student, then a partisan during the World War II. A one-time editor of the Communist Party daily L'Unita, he was elected to Parliament in 1968 - the same year as Berlinguer.
Another resistance fighter, Luciano Lama, is considered as the most charismatic candidate for the party leadership. For 14 years, Mr. Lama has headed the Communist-led Confederation of Italian Workers union and helped fight the recent battle over the government's measures to reduce labor costs.
What observers see as crucial at this point, however, is continuation of the Berlinguer line rather than change - especially in the midst of the intense election campaign.
For this reason, according to the liberal left-leaning daily La Repubblica, Alessandro Natta could well stay as Berlinguer's successor at least until the next party congress in three years' time.