POLITICAL leaders are beginning to stake out their positions as Italians await official word on when they will elect a new Parliament.
The vote, which could come before the end of March, will be the first to be held under a new electoral system intended to produce two broad, alternating political forces.
Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi is consulting today and tomorrow with the heads of the country's political parties on the next step, after announcing in a year-end press conference that he believed his government had finished its work. On Jan. 12, Parliament will debate and vote on a no-confidence measure proposed against the Ciampi government.
In the country's first direct mayoral elections late last year, left-wing coalitions - led by the Democratic Party of the Left (the PDS or ex-Communists) - emerged triumphant in Rome, Naples, Palermo, Genoa, Venice, and Trieste.
Since then, the PDS has gotten a green-light from Confindustria, the businessmen's association, to enter the next government; has announced support for a second term for Mr. Ciampi, the former governor of the Bank of Italy; and has been working to sew together a broad coalition for the parliamentary elections, including the Communist Refoundation, which still considers itself Communist. The latter move has not been successful, as some center-left politicians object to being lumped together with the Refoundation.
``The left is less united than it seems, because there are a lot of people who cast their ballots for the left because they thought the left was no longer Communist,'' says Rocco Buttiglione, a member of the Christian Democratic Party (DC) leadership. ``These voters could be discouraged by this [prospective] alliance.''
The Refoundation may control as much as 10 percent of the national vote, with the PDS garnering between 15 percent and 20 percent, Mr. Buttiglione estimates. Since the mayoral vote, no opinion polls measuring the fast-moving shift in voter preferences have been published.
BUT if there is dissent on the left, there is confusion on the right as well.
The DC, once the leading party with as much as a third of the vote, was demolished by the one-two punch of the country's ongoing bribery and corruption scandal, in which it was heavily implicated, and the mayoral elections, in which voters massively deserted the candidates it supported.
In an attempt to remedy the situation and to throw out corrupt politicians, the Christian Democrats will dissolve their party Jan. 18 and create the Italian Popular Party.
``The voters have abandoned the Christian Democrats not because our ideas are bad or wrong,'' Buttiglione says. ``The root of the crisis is a judgment of the personnel.''
Mario Segni, the champion of the referendum movement that helped create the new electoral system, has already agreed to align himself with the new Popular Party, Buttiglione says. Public opinion polls regularly show Mr. Segni, who broke with the DC last year, to be leading or high among the politicians that Italians want to see as the next prime minister.
``Segni is very popular for the referendums that struck down the ancien regime,'' Buttiglione says. ``He is perhaps the most popular politician in Italy today.''
Another important voice is media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who, swimming against the Confindustria current, has vented his fear of a strong PDS showing in the next elections.
Mr. Berlusconi has kept the nation on tenterhooks in recent weeks, making frequent political pronouncements (his latest observation is that Italians pay too much in taxes), but refraining from explicitly entering the political arena under his own banner.
``It is more likely that he will come with us, but it is a delicate operation,'' Buttiglione says.
A third factor on the center-right is the Northern League, which enjoys considerable strength in the North of Italy, but manifests secessionist tendencies, unpopular inside and outside of the party. Buttiglione says that if the League renounces these, there is also a good chance of a League alliance with the Popular Party.