FRIDAY, June 27, 1986, may have punctuated a new era in Italian politics. On that date, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi resigned, ending his record stay at Palazzo Chigi. When Mr. Craxi addressed the National Press Club in Washington shortly after his Cabinet's formulation in August 1983, his audience expressed skepticism at the new premier's expectation of a three-year term. Accustomed to analyzing Italian affairs in terms of body counts of Italian Cabinets, the experts misinterpreted the situation, the country's mood, and Craxi.
Since its foundation, ``imperfect bipolarism'' has dominated the Italian Republic. In European parliamentary democracies, power alternates between governmental parties and the opposition. This alternation has proved impossible in Italy, because the second-largest party, the Communist, has been excluded from power. Domestic and international perception of the Christian Democrats as the anticommunist bulwark kept them in power for 34 years, despite corruption. Newspaper editor Indro Montanelli best expressed the dilemma when he advised Italian voters: ``Hold your nose and vote Christian Democratic.''
The two largest parties came to an unofficial understanding: The Christian Democrats have ruled the country and the Communist Party has dominated the left.
This understanding broke down when Communist votes increased dramatically as a result of maladministration under the Christian Democrats and as the Communists claimed abandonment of fundamental Marxist tenets and proclaimed their independence from Moscow. These developments produced ``Eurocommunism'' and the ``historic compromise,'' different phases in the 1970s Communist bid for a share of power. The party joined the ruling coalition in 1978, but Roman Catholics and Communists could not work together and the ``historic compromise'' unraveled into stalemate.
The ``polarized'' political situation made it impossible to reform the nation's social structure. It slowed economic progress and contributed to terrorism.
Becoming Socialist Party secretary in 1976, Bettino Craxi advocated breaking the stalemate by pursuing an independent course and by opposing Socialist subservience to both the Communists and Christian Democrats.
He promised decisive government. By confronting Italy's problems head on, he would gain the support of the progressive middle class, inducing it to vote Socialist instead of Communist or Christian Democratic.
The first part of his plan succeeded brilliantly. Craxi's government established a record for durability. The economy is booming, inflation has declined, the country has joined the exclusive economic ``Club of Five,'' and the ``heavy lira'' is on the horizon. Craxi successfully reduced automatic cost-of-living allowances for workers, necessary to cool inflation; won a referendum on the issue; and handed the Communists a series of defeats. Amazingly, he won the applause of Communist union members. In foreign policy, he established a reputation for independence, even if prudence dictated more caution in Middle Eastern initiatives.
As a result, Craxi's approval rating has soared.
The problem is the second part of Craxi's plan: Will his success translate into votes for his party?
In June, local elections in Sicily appeared to give a negative answer to this question. The Socialists remained practically stationary, as did Christian Democrats and Communists. This result emboldened Christian Democratic leaders to ask for the premiership back and may have encouraged Christian Democratic ``snipers'' to vote against confidence in a secret ballot during Craxi's absence at an EC meeting on South Africa.
Craxi, however, has chosen an excellent pretext on which to resign. He has consistently denounced the procedure that allows secret voting in Parliament, permitting vote-switching without public scrutiny. Heavily influenced by clientelistic and other local factors, the Sicilian elections are not representative and highlight Christian Democratic connections to shady politics.
Three solutions to the crisis thus seem plausible. Craxi has requested a mandate to form another strong government that would last another year, after which he would resign to gear up his party for the national elections in 1987 or '88. Since the Christian Democrats have balked, the alternative would be a minority Christian Democratic government with outside Socialist support. This solution would place full responsibility on the Christian Democrats, while freeing Craxi to return full time as Socialist secretary. Failing agreement, early elections are considered possible, but unlikely.
Since Craxi stands to gain in all these cases, some commentators have suggested that he engineered his resignation. Resolution will not be easy, because forming a government involves a test of wills. But despite appearances, a new round of stability seems likely.
Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.