TRADITIONALLY, the end of August and start of September in Italy mark the restarting of the complex and cumbersome Italian political system after a well-deserved summertime hiatus, but 1986 appears strangely different. After a long political crisis, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi has returned to reap the fruits of his extraordinarily long and successful tenure in office. In fact, Cabinet discussions, which during the past 15 years have urgently confronted fearful economic difficulties, have this year exuded optimism. The Socialist-led government has cut taxes and is planning a 1987 deficit significantly reduced from 1985. Projections for next year indicate a 3.5 percent increase in gross national product and 4 percent inflation.
Critics argue that this scenario appears overly optimistic. They point to oil price stabilization and Italy's continued high inflation rate, compared with other Western countries -- but for once in its recent history, the nation can allow itself the luxury of two competing camps in economic policy.
Led by the finance and Treasury ministers, the fiscal conservatives are reluctant to let up on the belt-tightening which, in a fresh ``economic miracle,'' brought Italy back from an economic crisis unprecedented in contemporary Western European annals.
On the other hand, Mr. Craxi's Socialists argue that the time is right to spur further economic development through increased public investment and a reduction of social security levies on employers. Rather than aiming at a neat balance sheet, the Socialists argue, the government should now concentrate on reducing the nation's high unemployment rate.
Socialist economic experts have even called for tax reform on the American model.
Gone are the strikes, demonstrations, and political blackmail to which the opposition Communists regularly subjected weaker Christian Democratic governments.
Is this normalization of Italian economic dialogue a prelude to further normality in contemporary Italian political life?
During discussions that reconstituted his government, Prime Minister Craxi apparently accepted a March 1987 deadline, after which he would resign and make way for a Christian Democratic premier. He was reluctant to accept such a condition on principle, but forced to do so by reality, so the agreement has little practical significance. General elections are scheduled for 1988, and a Craxi spokesman had announced the prime minister's intention to resign after the spring Socialist Party congress.
Since he became Socialist secretary in 1976, Craxi aimed at liberating the Socialists from their intellectual and political subjection to the Communists, becoming prime minister, and translating the job's visibility into votes. He wished to reverse the electoral relationship between Communists and Socialists in Italy, transforming his party into a dominant political force.
While he succeeded brilliantly in the first two objectives, he is having problems with the third. While Enrico Berlinguer's Communists modified Marx, Craxi's Socialists demolished him; while the Communists remain hamstrung by the illogical thread they have woven to tie together Lenin and Western-style democracy, the Socialists have trouble replacing their old gods with a commitment to Craxi's modern reformism. The result, according to Craxi's political counselor Luciano Pellicani, is a ``crisis of outlook'' that has affected the entire left.
Despite Craxi's impressive performance as prime minister, this crisis has especially hit the Socialist Party, an essential vehicle for any electoral breakthrough. A party with a 100-year tradition and immense intellectual vitality, and once noted for its moral uprightness, has been hit by scandals; its city organizations seem moribund, it attracts only political professionals -- the intellectual renaissance that occurred a few years ago is on the wane.
In an interview with this writer, the moral leader of the Socialist left wing, Antonio Giolitti, said: ``Along with the reaffirmation of autonomy [and] this aggressivity of Craxi as a political actor, there has been this kind of silence in the party. It is difficult to explain.''
Craxi has attempted to remedy the party crisis through a rediscovery of Italian Socialist roots, a linkup with Liberals and Social Democrats, and institutional changes. These alterations, however, have augmented Craxi's control, leading critics to charge that Craxi has transformed the once-proud Socialist Party into a vehicle for his own personal power. On the other hand, the party's legendary splits had catastrophic political consequences, such as tying its hands against Fascism. No Socialist leader wishes a return to the squabbling past.
The Socialists eagerly await Craxi's full-time return to party affairs to revitalize their organization. Their ideal, however, may be obsolete. Trends in all Italian parties, including the Communist and Christian Democratic, parallel the Socialist Party. With the mounting modernization of Italian society, the parties appear subject to increasing ``Americanization'' -- decreasing individual participation and increasing professionalization. Furthermore, Mediterranean socialism in Spain, Portugal, France, and Greece has also been marked by the emergence of strong leaders.
The highly structured and clientelistic world of Italian politics makes sudden electoral shifts of the American type unlikely, but they may follow party developments. In that case, the leader's outlook and role will become increasingly crucial -- like it or not.
Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.