With improvisation and aplomb, Italians weather government crises

Italians call it la crisi - the crisis period between the fall of one government and the constitution of another. The process often takes weeks, even months, and as 44 governments have come and gone since World War II, Italians spend much time without a government. How do they do it? Who makes decisions? Who occupies the ministers' offices?

Now is a good time to look for answers. Since Socialist Bettino Craxi resigned as prime minsiter in April, Italy has plunged once again into la crisi. The June 14 election is expected to prove indecisive, leaving a long period of haggling before a new coalition government can be formed.

``It's our best time when we don't have a government,'' says Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, a history professor at the University of Perugia. He is smiling, but not joking. ``You see,'' he explains, ``we Italians think the best government is the government that doesn't govern.''

Even in their most optimistic moods, Italians believe government is an obstacle to be ignored or overcome. This is a nation of master improvisers, where new suburbs spring up without a single building permit and cities with no factories visible produce millions of shoes and gloves. An official survey once revealed that 54 percent of all civil servants hold second jobs and 33 percent admitted to selling other goods during working hours.

Little wonder, observers say, that the government - even when there is one - doesn't work efficiently. The budget deficit is dangerously swollen. Trains, telephones, and other public services exist in a state of permanent emergency, while the morning news brings a daily litany of strikes.

For many Italians, history explains the reasons behind Italians' serenity in the face of such manifest disorder. ``Centuries of invasions and tyrannies have taught the Italian not to waste time with formal resistance,'' Amintore Fanfani - a Christian Democrat who is leading the current interim government - recently told an interviewer. ``Instead, we serenely invent homemade defenses and wait for the difficulties to blow over.''

Mr. Fanfani epitomizes the Italian knack for getting by. A diminutive but nimble man at 78, Fanfani became a minister for the first time in 1947 and formed his first government in 1954. Just this past April, he became Prime Minister for the sixth time.

The present Fanfani government is composed of Christian Democrat ministers left over from the Craxi government, plus technocratic civil servants who fill the posts formerly occupied by other coalition members, Socialists, Republicans, and Liberals.

In most ministries, life goes on as before. If a new minister arrives, he will bring in a small coterie of new advisers. The thousands of other civil servants stay in place.

``This is not like in Washington with a new administration,'' says Guiseppe Panocchia, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. ``We have 5,000 employees and the vast majority are professionals who remain, whatever government is in power. Only the chief of the cabinet and the chief of press affairs change.''

As an interim leader, Prime Minister Fanfani has little power except to call elections and deal with pressing issues. He enforces existing laws. He can try to negotiate - so far, unsuccessfully - with striking train and hospital workers. But he cannot take initiatives, even relatively innocuous-seeming ones.

Because governments are so often indecisive, power often flows to public organizations outside of the political arena.

A public holding company, IRI, controls companies such as the national airline, Alitalia, and the steel giant, Finsider. Public prosecutors, not the various ministers of justice, directed the fight against the Red Brigade terrorists in the 1970s and are now directing the fight against the Mafia. And public institutes that go by the acronyms of ISTAT and CENSIS, not the government, issue the most reliable economic and sociological statistics.

``In other countries if something really went [wrong] with the economy, say a balance of payments crisis, the Ministry of Treasury would act,'' says Innocenzo Cipolletta, director of research at the Confindustria, the Italian employers' federation. ``Here in Italy, it would be the Central Bank.''

The director of the Central Bank, of course, does not change as often as the treasury minister. Mr. Cipolletta says he believes such a system of ``indirect government'' saves Italy from crises. But in moments of reflection, he and other observers dream of an Italy where the treasury minister, as well as the Central Bank director, could remain on the job long enough to do it correctly.

``A stable government,'' he mutters. ``It's what we Italians need. It's what we Italians want. So why can't we have one?''

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