IN some cities, you had to choose between the honest, competent man who would do the public good and the Christian Democrat," says Rocco Buttiglione.
Mr. Buttiglione, who is not a nemesis of the Christian Democratic Party (DC) but part of its 15-member governing board, highlights one of the party's current problems.
The DC, which has guided Italy in coalition governments since World War II, has never been in worse shape. The party that built a broad consensus in Italian society, especially among the middle class, has been badly hurt by scandals involving organized crime and kickbacks on public contracts. And in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it remains ideologically adrift. Party leader Mino Martinazzoli has called an important DC assembly for this summer to work out reforms and even talks of renaming the party.
But some people don't want to wait.
"He's moving too slowly," says Fabiana Di Paola, an economics student and a member of the party's youth group. "I'm young and I want to see change now."
So does Mario Segni, the head of People for Reform and the son of a former president of the country. He left the party in March, saying it has become "an apparatus that has lost every link with the healthy part of Italian society, an apparatus dominated by men who opened the doors of the republic to the corrupt and the Mafiosi."
Many of the DC's most prominent figures are under investigation.
Giulio Andreotti, the seven-time prime minister, is accused by former Mafiosi of meeting with leading exponents of Cosa Nostra, including the reputed boss of bosses, Salvatore Riina, and of doing political favors for the Mafia. Mr. Andreotti strenuously denies the charges.
Andreotti announced May 3 that he would ask the Parliament to waive his parliamentary immunity to prosecution. The decision followed public outrage over Parliament's refusal to allow investigating magistrates in Milan to try ex-Socialist Party chief Bettino Craxi on a series of charges related to kickbacks.
Antonio Gava, a former interior minister, is under investigation for links to the Camorra organized crime group of Naples.
"He's the heart of DC power ... the kingmaker," says Massimo Franco, author of the new Italian book, "Everyone Home: The Twilight of Mamma DC."
Other leading Christian Democrats under investigation, most of them for alleged kickbacks, include ex-Budget Minister Paolo Cirino Pomicino, Sen. Severino Citaristi (a key DC finance figure, who has been notified more times by magistrates that he is under investigation than any other person), former party head Arnaldo Forlani, ex-Education Minister Riccardo Misasi, ex-Public Works Minister Gianni Prandini, parliamentary Deputy Vittorio Sbardella (a leading figure in Rome), and ex-Interior Minister Vincen zo Scotti.
It is a sad state of affairs for the party that has always enjoyed the explicit support of the Roman Catholic Church. The DC's (and the Vatican's) overriding desire down the decades was to keep the highly popular Italian Communist Party from coming to power.
"Here you have the key to the development of Italy and here you also have the key to the problems of today," Buttiglione says. "The fall of the Berlin Wall has been almost as important for Italy as for the communist countries."
With the demise of communism, the party lost an important raison dtre. Simultaneously, populist politician Umberto Bossi's Lombard League, later renamed the Northern League, was making inroads on the DC's northern electorate. The party slipped several points in the April 1992 parliamentary elections.
In the last year, DC leaders have watched the Socialists, their partners in recent government coalitions, drop from about 14 percent of the vote in the April 1992 parliamentary elections to less than 5 percent in recent opinion polls.
Could something similar happen to the DC?
No, says Massimo Franco.
"While behind its power the Socialist Party has nothing, the DC has the church behind it," he explains. "It won't fall until the Roman Catholic Church stops supporting it ... and the church has no other political force to take the place of the DC."
Buttiglione is less certain. The DC could disappear, he suggests. Its need today is to put forward the best candidates possible, he says, because in this political climate "Catholics will vote for the better man."