Italy's Beleaguered Christian Democrats Search for Strategy

THE Christian Democrat Party meets today in a constituent assembly to try to save itself from extinction.

The party that has led Italian governments in coalitions since World War II has been hit hard by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and, more recently, by judicial investigations into political corruption and political ties to organized crime.

In the last few years, the Christian Democrats (DC) have steadily lost votes. DC candidates won only a few posts in last month's mayoral elections in cities throughout Italy, with the Northern League of Sen. Umberto Bossi winning big in the north and Democratic Party of the Left-backed politicians (the ex-Communists and DC Nemesis) winning about half the seats throughout Italy. The defeat was made more painful because citizens were voting directly for candidates in many cities where the mayor was previou sly an appointed position.

Why does the DC, once Italy's uncontested leading party, find itself in such straits?

"In my opinion because of the end of communism," says Massimo Franco, the author of a recent book about the DC. "That's what did the DC in."

A key task of the old party - keeping the Communists out of power - no longer makes sense. So the party is meeting today through Monday to sketch out a basic post-Communist ideology, give itself a new name, and purge itself of people implicated in the country's numerous current scandals.

The DC has been an explicitly Roman Catholic presence in politics over the decades and has had close ties to the Vatican. What the Church would like to see is a new party with a pure conscience, Mr. Franco says.

"I think the Catholic Church is very much in agreement with this step," he says.

If the DC can avoid getting caught up in personality and in internal disputes, the Church's bishops announced Wednesday, "it will make a decisive contribution to the development of democracy in our country."

Among those conspicuously not invited to attend is Guilio Andreotti, Italy's former seven-time prime minister. Mr. Andreotti was notified in March by judges in the Sicilian capital of Palermo that he was under investigation for alleged contacts with the Mafia. According to Mafia penitents, Andreotti personally met with "boss of bosses" Salvatore Riina, arrested Jan. 15 in Palermo, and with other leading exponents of Cosa Nostra.

Andreotti was also accused by investigating magistrates last month of ordering the murder of Mino Pecorelli, a magazine editor who was allegedly blackmailing the former prime minister over secrets in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of DC leader Aldo Moro.

The former prime minister denies both charges.

Despite his banishment, Andreotti is expected to send a letter to the constituent assembly.

Pressure on the DC to change has been building for months.

Senator Bossi's Northern League has continually hammered away at DC practices and policies that it says have brought the country to its current political and economic difficulties. Many northern Roman Catholics have deserted the DC to vote for the League.

Just two days after Andreotti was notified he was under investigation for alleged Mafia links, Mario Segni, a leading DC figure, left the party. Mr. Segni, the champion of the referendum movement that has been fundamental in expressing the popular will for reform, said the DC had opened its doors to "the corrupt and the mafiosi." He has since been a key force behind the emerging center-left Democratic Alliance.

More recently, Rosy Bindi, the no-nonsense DC leader in Veneto, took her region's party out of the national organization, renamed it, and removed those members who were under judicial investigation. Ms. Bindi has been gaining support for her active efforts to reform the DC while still remaining within the party.

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