WITH the stroke of a pen, the Italians have spurned the way their country has been governed since World War II.
Fed up with years of political corruption, inefficiency, and official tolerance of organized crime - highlighted during more than a year of judicial investigations - 8 out of 10 voters on April 18-19 expressed approval for a British-style system for electing their Senate.
The result could be two or three political groupings, as in the United States and Britain, with more coherent policies and more stable governments. But analysts expect resistance from entrenched political interests.
The size of the victory came as a surprise even to supporters.
"Despite the opinion polls beforehand, no one really expected a result higher than 65 percent," says Stefano Ceccanti, a member of People for Reform, a citizens' group led by Mario Segni, a pro-referendum politician.
Directly after the polls closed on April 19, Prime Minister Giuliano Amato visited President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to say his government's work was finished. Mr. Scalfaro was expected to open talks with party leaders on a new government on April 23, following an appearance by Mr. Amato before Parliament to present his resignation.
It appeared that Amato might be tapped to succeed himself, although in an opinion poll Italians said they preferred Mr. Segni, ex-anti-Mafia judge Giuseppe Ayala (another active reform-minded politician), and three other politicians to Amato.
The poll and the vote emphasize the Italian desire to see new leaders who are credible and whose policies are in touch with the aspirations of the electorate.
This attitude signals the beginning of the slow demise of the partitocrazia, the rule of the parties in everyday life and accompanying patronage practices.
"It's a profound defeat for the partitocrazia," says Gian Maria Fara, the head of the Ispes political institute. "The parties as they exist today have no future.... The politicians have been fired."
Many prominent politicians had already been seriously compromised by the wave of judicial investigations. Former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti has been accused by ex-Mafia members in recent judicial investigations of meeting with top Mafia bosses, including Salvatore Riina (reputed to be the leader of the Sicilian Mafia), Stefano Bontade, and Gaetano Badalamenti. Former Prime Minister and ex-Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi has been the target of an array of investigations regarding illegal financi ng of his party through kickbacks on public contracts. Parliament is considering whether to lift both men's parliamentary immunity to prosecution.
IN the referendum, Italians approved a Senate in which three-fourths of the members would be voted in under the British system (whoever wins the most votes takes the seat) and the remainder would be elected under the existing proportional system that gave birth to 12 national parties.
But in Italy, a referendum can only nullify a law, which means a new electoral law must be created by Parliament. Serious action is unlikely to begin before Italian mayoral elections in June, Mr. Ceccanti says, though he wryly adds that many predictions in today's political atmosphere are outdated 24 hours later.
Nor, he says, is it certain that the massive support for changing the Senate will necessarily lead to a change as well for the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, as some people had predicted. Thus the next Parliament could end up being elected under separate systems for the Chamber and the Senate.
Complicating the matter further, many reform-minded politicians who voted "yes" in fact prefer a modified French system, in which there are primaries and final elections, as opposed to the referendum's single-vote British-style system. And other politicians still like the existing system.
"The danger is that a political class that already feels it has been shoved aside will try, through various maneuvers, to annul the results of this referendum," Mr. Fara says.
The approval of seven other questions underscores the popular desire for fundamental reform.
Nine out of 10 Italians voted to abolish public financing of the political parties. The same number approved ending the practice of making political appointments to savings banks, a serious blow to politics as usual. Voters abolished three ministries, indicating a desire for a more streamlined government, Fara says. They removed responsibility for the environment from a government agency. And they approved, by a narrow margin, annulling the law that imposed mandatory prison sentences on drug users.
So intense was support for change in the electoral system that among the small Rete and Communist Refoundation parties, 3 out of 5 voters defied calls by their leaders for a "no" vote and approved the Senate question anyway, according to exit polls.