LESS than two weeks from mayoral elections, public opinion polls are predicting runoffs in Rome, Naples, and Palermo between politicians for the most part outside the mainstream.
A Green parliamentarian and the neo-Fascist party chief are expected to face off in Rome; a member of the Democratic Party of the Left (the ex-communists) and the neo-Fascist granddaughter of dictator Benito Mussolini are leading in Naples; and in Palermo, the leader of Rete, a small, clean government, anti-Mafia party, has a wide lead over a European Parliament deputy of the equally small Republican Party. Each field is filled with other candidates who trail significantly in the polls.
Hard hit by the country's ongoing kickback and corruption scandal, the country's governing parties - the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, the Social Democrats, and the Liberals - are unable to mount serious challenges.
``By now the old parties are finished,'' says Andrea Scrosati, spokesman for the Rete. ``They're not able to present strong people.''
The Nov. 21 mayoral vote in cities throughout the country will be significant, says Sergio Romano, a history professor at Bocconi University in Milan and a former Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union.
``There is a great deal of disillusionment with the political parties,'' said Mr. Romano, speaking from Milan. ``The situation is moving so fast that you've got to interpret these elections as gigantic sounding boards.''
The local protests against bad administration, high taxes, and the ideological crisis of the traditional parties is reflected somewhat by the latest poll of voters, in which Italians were asked how they would vote in case of early parliamentary elections.
The Christian Democrats, who have ruled the country continuously in coalitions since the end of World War II, would win 21 percent, a sizable drop from the 30 percent or so it has won in recent elections. The Northern League would win 17.7 percent and the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) 17.5 percent, with numerous other formations trailing at or below 6 percent of the vote. The League is the protest party par excellence in the north of the country, where it wins between 25 and 35 percent of the vote. The PDS (and its predecessor) has been excluded from power on a national level and has emerged relatively clean from the latest political scandals.
In the mayoral races, minor parties are popular in major cities because their candidates aren't the same old faces, Romano suggests.
``The people are protesting, are complaining. The two candidates that seem to attract greater attention in Rome are hardly concrete promises of change,'' Romano says. ``You can't say that they are substantial candidates with a background that inspires confidence and projects that can be recognized as concrete. It seems to me that there is a great deal of protest, which proves what? It simply proves, it seems to me, that if you want to attract votes today you've got to use personalities that are not individually compromised by the old system, that appear `new' consequently. Of course, as you look behind these candidates you very often discover that there are the old forces.''
For example, he suggests, there are rough analogies between the vote in Milan last June and the coming vote in Rome. In Milan, Marco Formentini, the eventual victor, had small-business backing; in Rome, about half of the Rome builders, the city's most powerful economic force, have abandoned the Christian Democrats, their traditional favorite, to back neo-Fascist party leader Gianfranco Fini. The PDS backed candidate Nando Dalla Chiesa in Milan; it is backing Green parliamentarian Francesco Rutelli in Rome.
``Traditional parties have a tendency to stay in the wings rather than expose themselves to the votes, because they know that the people are mad, are annoyed, are unhappy, are disillusioned with traditional political formations,'' Romano says.
Pressure is mounting for early parliamentary elections. No date has been named yet by the country's president, though he is widely expected to choose some time in April 1994.
In Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, the leader of the Rete, has about 45 percent of the mayoral vote according to the latest poll, almost reaching the more than 50 percent of the vote required to win the election outright.
Why is an anti-Mafia candidate doing so well in a city traditionally dominated by Cosa Nostra? Even in Palermo a quiet revolution is under way, it seems.
``In recent years ... there's been a change in the culture of the Palermo citizens,'' says Mr. Scrosati, citing among other things revulsion at the mob violence and the arrests this year of the two highest Mafia leaders. ``Orlando is the natural candidate.''