Italians Go to the Polls, Ready to Change System

EVERYONE says it. Italy cannot go on being governed the same old way.

Corruption and Mafia scandals have discredited most of the country's leading politicians and called into question the electoral system that has produced 12 national parties and governments that often have not lasted a year.

"We've been working to break this system," says Francesco Ottoni, the spokesman for the Committee for Electoral Reform, a citzen's group. "It's an obsolete system."

In a key step toward change, Italians have been voting yesterday and today in a referendum to reform the way they elect their legislators.

Immediately after the polls close today, Prime Minister Giuliano Amato will visit President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to agree on the government's next steps, Mr. Amato said.

"I believe my government has fundamentally finished its work," he told businessmen in Venice on Saturday.

If Italians vote "si," they will be telling Parliament: Create a Senate that has 75 percent of the members elected under the British system (in which a candidate gets a contested seat by winning the most votes) and the other 25 percent elected according to the existing system. The logical result, supporters say, would be a couple of major political groupings, as in the United States or Britain.

If the Italians vote "No," the current system - an inordinately complicated ritual that assures all political voices have their say - will remain in place.

In opinion polls before the vote, 4 out of 5 Italians said they would vote "si." A "si" vote, says Mario Segni, an ex-Christian Democrat politician and the champion of the referendum, is a vote for broadly backed policies and stable government.

But flaws are apparent to everyone. Voting yes would create a mandate for changing the way the Senate is elected, but not the Chamber of Deputies. Furthermore, the proposed hybrid of electoral systems is neither fish nor fowl.

In fact, the referendum question was a compromise drafted before judicial investigations shook the country, says Mr. Ottoni, and before calls for full-blown change gained wide support.

Not far away from Ottoni's office, the ex-Communist Party held a rally in the closing hours of the campaign on Friday. The message was change, but there were some familiar trappings, too. The rally opened, 35 minutes late, with the Internationale blaring over loudspeakers, four or five people waving huge red flags of the re-named Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), and an audience of several hundred respectful listeners, many carrying the party daily newspaper, L'Unitia.

"Comrades.... We have to get rid of the people who have led Italy to collapse," exhorted party leader Achille Occhetto. "With your `si,' you say you want to change this country's whole slate of rules." He "invited" Premier Amato to resign immediately after the referendum.

As Mr. Occhetto was winding down in Piazza dei Santi Apostoli, where statues on the square's sunlit church gazed down on him, Gianfranco Fini was just getting started about a mile away in the approaching twilight of Piazza del Popolo.

The leader of the neo-fascist Social Movement had quite a different message for a more restless crowd: The referendum question is just a trick, you must vote no and then elect a clean Parliament that can make real changes instead of letting the current crop of corrupt politicians make the new rules.

"Our Italian young people have nostalgia for the old values," said Mr. Fini, as people browsed along a nearby table of literature, including several books by the late Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. "And with these values, we can rebuild Italy! ... The current system is on its knees."

And with a rousing shout, he concluded, "Long live the `no' of April 18! Long live the Social Movement!"

As police watched from the sidelines, a couple hundred young people in front of the stage erupted in chants, jumping up and down, with their hands extended in the fascist salute.

Among Fini's strange bedfellows in the No vote are the Communist Refoundation Party, most of the Green Party, the clean-government, anti-Mafia Rete, and a hard-line portion of the PDS.

On the "si" side are the Christian Democrats, the Northern League, the Socialists, the Social Democrats, the Democratic Party of the Left, the Republicans, the Liberals, and the party of maverick radical Marco Pannella.

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