THE rebuff of the Christian Democratic-led coalition in the April 5-6 general elections here is being described by commentators throughout the country as a political earthquake. Like a real earthquake, its aftershocks may be felt for a long time.
"The previous coalition majority is no longer in existence, and there is no other easily constructed majority," said Bettino Craxi, the leader of the Socialist Party and a former prime minister. "The political geography has undergone evident and substantial changes. The vote ... contains diffuse and evident elements of protest. At any rate, the results are clear enough to induce reflection."
As always, in Italian elections, no party has anything close to a majority in Parliament, but results this time have distributed votes among various smaller parties to a greater degree than usual, and created opposition blocs among both right-wing and left-wing groupings.
President Francesco Cossiga said before a trip to the United States that he doubted he would empower any party to form a coalition before the end of the month.
Political leaders and commentators alike predict a period of confusion and frantic political maneuvering before a government can be installed, and stress that the election results constitute an urgent call for a thorough reform of the entrenched political system and the complicated proportional electoral process.
The Christian Democrats, which have formed the basis of all of Italy's governments for more than four decades, for the first time received less than 30 percent of the votes, dropping about five points from their total in the last general elections in 1987. The coalition together received less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
While this still makes the Christian Democrats by far the country's largest political party, the sharp loss underscored a lack of voter confidence that was further accentuated by the electoral support given to a wider range of fringe and protest parties.
"At the polls, 1 in 4 Italians chose extreme protest and relegated his vote to the margins of the political system," Mino Fuccillo wrote in the newspaper La Repubblica. "Never has this rejection been so strong."
Indeed, the Christian Democrats and their outgoing coalition were defeated, but in a sense the traditional opposition force also collapsed or was dispersed.
"The opposition to the Christian Democrats, to the coalition, is extremely fragmented, which will make the relationship between any eventual coalition and the opposition very difficult," says Christian Democratic vice president Silvio Lega. "What the opposition represents is not clear."
Historically, Christian Democratic-based coalitions have been counterbalanced by a Communist opposition that was never permitted to get into office. The right-wing opposition was negligible.
But following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, the Italian Communist Party dissolved itself and split into two parties - a mainstream leftist party known as the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) and a smaller, hard-line Stalinist group.
The PDS remains Italy's second-largest party, but with 16 percent to 17 percent of the vote is much less powerful than the former Communists. Its future role - as core of a leftist opposition, or even for the first time as possible member of a coalition government - remains unclear.
PDS leader Achille Occhetto rejects the suggestion that his party had failed to demonstrate credibility. "Our two objectives were met: to get the four-party coalition defeated and to remain the foremost leftist party."
As the left seemed to regroup, voter protest caused the right to surge onto the scene with the dramatic success of the right-wing, regionalist Northern League, a populist party that opposes Rome's central government and wants to split off the prosperous north from the poor south.
In the northern city of Milan, the league, whose populist, anti-immigration positions have been compared to nationalist parties in France and Germany, surpassed the Christian Democrats as the No. 1 political force. And although virtually all their strength came from the north, the League and related parties won so much support there that they became the fourth largest party nationwide.
Protest, too, could be seen in parts of southern Italy, particularly in Sicily, where the Network, a loose political grouping running on an anti-Mafia ticket, won considerable support. It became the second-largest party in the Sicilian capital, Palermo, and also had some success elsewhere.
Taken altogether, the overall vote presents a picture of a sharply divided country. The league won success in the north with its blatantly antisouth positions. The Christian Democratic-led coalition lost nationwide, but in southern Italy still attracted more than 60 percent of the vote. Aside from the Christian Democrats, no one party nationwide received more than 17 percent of the vote.
Pundits and politicians alike are concerned about Italy's capability to compete in a new, united Europe.
"From the polls has emerged an Italy that is more European only from the point of view of the common wind of crisis," the newspaper La Nazione said.