In Italy, Tide Turns Against `Politics As Usual'

European unity lends urgency to latest drive for political reform

WHEN a leading Italian economic daily, Il Sole/ 24 Ore, recently reported the surprise resignation of an important industrial-finance company's president, the paper dutifully noted high in the story that the departing executive was a socialist. What might have seemed like a misplaced emphasis on political affiliation in many countries was standard journalism in Italy.

In a country where thousands of management-level jobs in industry - not to mention the public sector - are allotted to political parties according to their electoral weight, party affiliation counts for much.

This allocation of jobs to the parties, known as lotizzazione, is just one of the problems many Italians cite when discussing a hot topic here: national institutional reform.

Whether the problem is Italy's huge debt, shoddy infrastructure and poor public services, the rise of regionalist, antigovernment political organizations in the industrial north, or the Mafia in the south, the conviction is growing that solutions depend on major reforms that change the way Italy operates politically.

Calls for political reform in Italy are not new, but the urgency expressed by politicians, political experts, business groups, and average Italians is.

``Change in Italy's political system and the power it offers the parties is an absolute necessity,'' says Enzo Bartocci, an industrial sociologist at the University of Rome and a member of the national research council.

That sentiment is reflected in a recent poll by the daily Corriere della Sera, which showed 67 percent of Italians favoring popular election of a strong president, over the party-controlled system that has existed here since World War II. The poll's results led the influential daily to conclude, ``Italians are ready for the second republic.''

Growing integration within the European Community (EC) and its unified internal market at the end of 1992 is seen here as perhaps the single most important force behind the resurgence of reformist thinking.

``Business is counting on the EC and the single market,'' says Bruno Calzia, a Rome business attorney specializing in EC-business relations. ``Nothing internally has convinced the political leaders of what is now becoming clear: Europe is what counts now, and Italy will be less influential in it if it does not solve its political problems.''

Those words could have been spoken by Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis. With competition growing among European states, he sees Italy held back by inefficiencies in the public sector and by a decrepit financial system, both of which are tied to the political system.

Experts here say the political future of the EC is in its stronger countries: Germany, France, Britain if it chooses, increasingly Spain. But Italy, they worry, could find itself shut out of a decisive role.

``It won't be possible for this Italy,'' says Dr. Bartocci. ``If we want to play in the future of Europe, we will have to react and change our political situation.''

Domestically, experts here see growing public rejection of the country's political status quo.

First among these are the ``leagues'' blossoming in Italy's industrial north, in cities like Milan, Turin, and Venice. Polls show the leagues with 5 to 10 percent of the Italian electorate, but in Lombardy they have been strong enough to elect a member of the European Parliament.

A direct response to what the public considers the corruption and inefficiency of the central government, the leagues favor increased regional powers and a distancing from the less-prosperous south.

Some experts worry that in the long run, as a borderless Western Europe develops out of the EC's single market, the leagues could end up a catalyst for a ``Balkanization'' of Italy, with the north turning its back to the nation in favor of Germany and the rest of industrial Europe.

The irony of Italy is that, despite increasing reference among Italians to a ``crisis,'' the economy, while slowing, is still performing well. That dampens the sense of urgency and delays action. ``Our problem is that the crisis is in the Constitution, not in the economy, so people are not feeling a daily incentive for change,'' says Bartocci.

Another problem is that even many of those advocating reform are so tied into the current system and its patronage that their calls for change are compromised.

``Look at Confindustria,'' says one political observer, referring to Italy's principal organization of business management.

``No doubt there are sincere proponents of reform there, especially the big companies. But the organization's director is a political appointee,'' he says, ``so there's a link to the system. And many small companies have thrived with local patronage and lax tax collection.''

That doesn't mean there are no concrete proposals for change.

Socialist leader Bettino Craxi approves of the idea of a referendum on a strong presidential system. The Communist Party, which is in the midst of a self-imposed metamorphosis into a West European-style party of the left, favors a strong national leader, but still derived from party leadership, and a German-style federal system giving more power to the regions.

The Christian Democrats, who have guided Italy since the war and who at about 35 percent of the electorate remain the country's largest party, rightly consider that they potentially have the most to lose in any reform, and are the least committed to it.

The major stumbling block to reform remains the two-thirds vote of Parliament required for constitutional revision. No one political party or coalition of parties commands the votes to approve change.

``Reform is a necessity, everybody knows it,'' says Piero Fassino, director of the Communist Party's political commission. ``But it will take an agreement among all the parties, and that won't be easy.''

Yet with the economy not expected to fail soon, observers say the catalyst for the needed political reform will have to come from somewhere else.

One possibility is a government collapse, which many here believe could come as early as spring. That could force elections - but not necessarily any political reforms: Italy is already on its 49th government in 44 years.

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