THE grimy and crumbling monuments of historic Rome stand as apt symbols of a country whose postwar political system teeters on the verge of collapse.
Almost as profoundly shaken by the demise of communism as the countries of Eastern Europe, Italy finds itself saddled with a political system that was designed to keep what was once the West's largest communist party out of power, but ended up institutionalizing inertia, breeding corruption, and ruling out genuine democratic alternatives.
"Our system resulted in a frozen democracy where only one majority - that of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists - was possible," says Pier Luigi Romita, a Socialist member of Parliament and a recent minister of European affairs.
"Many of our problems result from our having no majority alternative," says Mr. Romita. "But now the pressures [for reform] are too great to resist," he adds.
A number of factors have come together to constitute the pressure for reform that Romita and others here talk about:
* The collapse of communism and of Italy's own Communist Party, making a system based on keeping Communists out of power irrelevant.
* Deepening political corruption revelations, including the public-works financing scandal in Milan, have turned growing numbers of Italians away from the traditional parties of power.
* The rise of the "leagues," a political movement that supports distancing Italy's wealthy north from "corrupt" Rome and the country's poor south. The leagues were once dismissed as a protest movement, but with recent elections suggesting they are now the most popular party across large swatches of the north, pressure is on to move away from Italy's proportional representation system.
* A collection of grass-roots referendums focused on political and public financing reforms and now set for next spring. The referendums' likely popularity is pushing political leaders to do the reforming before an angry public does it for them. Italy's constitutional court just last week ruled the referendums legal, pushing the pressure up a few notches.
* The growing influence of European Community decisions in Italian affairs and the need to work more closely with the EC. Italy is notoriously behind its EC partners in implementing the Community's single market, for example, largely because of its laborious legislative process.
* Europe's economic downturn and Italy's own deep economic crisis, both of which have discredited the feelings once widely held here that the country's political inertia was irrelevant. The economic crisis has made Italians aware that the state can no longer be everything to everybody, which means political choices must be made.
Just what form Italy's political reform will take is as yet unclear, but the country appears likely to move toward a majority system of government that weakens the power of small parties and encourages traditional Western left-right, or conservative-progressive, alliances.
One picture of Italy's future can be seen in a cramped office not far from Rome's Trevi Fountain. Volunteers log the phone calls and count the small checks pouring into the Popular Movement for Reform, an upstart organization begun by prominent Christian Democrat Mario Segni.
A very un-Italian rally organized by Mr. Segni earlier this month in Rome drew 15,000 exuberant Italians, boosting Segni's stature and interest in his ideas. A month after placing a magazine ad including a coupon to send in and show support, the Popular Movement for Reform has received thousands of responses - most with a modest check.
"It's essential that this effort remain close to its supporters and that they know how their contributions are being spent," says Fabio Cavazza, one of three keepers of the movement's "open books" system.
Segni's movement, which is pushing for reform through referendums, wants to do away with the country's proportional system, which allots local and national representation to parties according to their electoral strength, in favor of a majority system where voters choose individuals, not a party.
"With 10 percent of the country's parliamentarians before the courts, people are finally convinced that the system must change," says Juliano Bianucci, a spokesman for Segni's movement. "We need political representatives who are responsible to the people, and to achieve that the voters have to know the individual they are voting for."
Not everyone agrees with this vision, however. Others, including Romita and many other Socialists, say Italy should retain a modified proportional system that does not reduce the political party to a mere electoral machine. "It is a part of European culture that political parties are more than something that surfaces at election time, as in the US," says Romita.
Normally in Italy, debate on such important questions might go on for years, but today's situation leaves leaders with no alternative but to bite the bullet.
"Two years ago people were also talking of political reform," says Enzo Bartocci, a political scientist in Rome, "but the economy was good, so no one felt the urgency. Now not only are the coffers empty, but the leagues are threatening to become the majority in the north."
For Bartocci it is the leagues whose policies pose a threat to Italy's unity, and will finally push political leaders to give Italians an alternative they can trust.
"What we have come down to is a basic identity question," says Bartocci. "Over recent years `Italy' has degenerated to a pejorative identification, with both the rise of the European Community and of the leagues encouraging a turn to the local dimension."
But now people will have to decide what national identity means to them, Bartocci says, and what kind of political and social institutions they want it to represent. "My feeling is that people will find their national identity is important, and that will work in favor of substantial reform," he says.