Italy: searching for direction

`TODAY let us pray the Lord to enlighten Italian politicians and achieve an immediate solution to the current political crisis so that the people will not suffer additional discomfort.'' Although this prayer offered up by nuns in a Roman convent has apparently been answered by recomposition of the Goria Cabinet, Italy will not return soon to the stability it enjoyed between 1983 and early 1987. A few prayers might well be in order for some future stability as well. Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of the latest governmental collapse was the political system's increased volatility - well beyond the calculations of the country's rulers.

What's happening?

Italy's two largest parties are on the defensive.

Legislative issues are increasingly deadlocked. The period ahead is one of political uncertainty.

New national elections are inevitable, although exactly when they will occur remains in doubt.

A period of confusion had been anticipated. The parties that dominated Italy for 40 years - Christian Democratic and Communist - have been steadily declining because of their inability to take up the challenge launched by Bettino Craxi's Socialists. After Mr. Craxi's recent - and successful - four-year tenure as prime minister, the Christian Democrats exacted the prime ministership on the grounds that they had not held the post for six years even though they are the country's largest party. From the beginning of his tenure a scarce four months ago, however, Christian Democratic Prime Minister Giovanni Goria has been viewed, correctly, it is evident, as unlikely to develop into a viable leader.

By demonstrating the nation's strong support for their own positions in recent referendums, the Socialists hoped to weaken the Christian Democrats and prepare the way for Craxi's return to Palazzo Chigi. Thus, when the tiny Liberal Party pulled out of the coalition immediately after the referendums, it appeared to many observers that its secretary had toppled Mr. Goria at Craxi's behest. Since a loose alliance on civil rights links Liberals and Socialists, this interpretation seemed plausible at first. But the Liberals are also fiscal conservatives and are waging a war for political survival, so they may have provoked the crisis against Craxi's advice to appeal to conservative Christian Democratic voters. In fact, the Goria Cabinet fell too quickly to allow Palazzo Chigo to come under the control of a different party, which explains why this particular government crisis was patched up so quickly.

Even though it is now clear that Craxi did not scuttle the government, resolution of a number of new issues has inevitably been put on the table. Ironically, Christian Democratic foot-dragging and constant Communist Machiavellianism paralyzed the legislative process in the first place and made resort to the unwieldy referendum mechanism necessary to reform the country. As the self-proclaimed party of the modern and politically progressive part of Italian society, the Socialists cannot allow these status quo forces to continue blocking their efforts to reform Italy without grave risk of losing face with the electorate. A new national energy plan without nuclear power and strong civil rights are important planks in the reformist Socialist platform.

So what's being resolved by Italy's current government? Not much. Political experts expect another round of early national elections in 1989 - or much sooner.

Spencer Di Scala is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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