WITH their country still reeling from an unprecedented crisis, the Italians are preparing to elect a new Parliament.
They will have the opportunity to sweep away a generation of politicians discredited in the Tangentopoli bribery and corruption scandal and in judicial probes into links between politicians and organized crime.
``In Italian, we say, `Better late than never,' '' says Andrea Scrosati, spokesman for the clean-government, anti-Mafia Rete party.
On Jan. 16, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro dissolved Parliament, by far the Italian Republic's shortest-lived (651 days). Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who remains in office until after the vote, then announced the election for March 27. That date sparked immediate controversy, since it coincides with the Jewish Passover, on which practicing Jews are forbidden to vote. The government is considering issuing a decree to keep the polls open through March 28.
Politicians, meanwhile, are still far from conforming to the spirit of an electoral-reform referendum overwhelmingly approved last June by their fellow citizens. Its promoters envisioned a liberal and a conservative party replacing the current dozen national parties, but there has been little action in this direction.
Noberto Bobbio, a respected elder political thinker, wrote recently in La Stampa newspaper that to develop a two-party system of conservatives and liberals, Italy must renounce anticommunism and antifascism (which stubbornly linger as political points of reference) and must also abandon the idea of a Roman Catholic political party.
The pope this month, however, urged political unity on Italy's Catholics, which was widely seen as a call to continue to vote en masse for an explicitly Catholic formation.
That party, the Christian Democratic Party (DC), was once Italy's largest. Hard hit by Tangentopoli, it met on Jan. 18 to create the Italian Popular Party and, it hopes, a new image.
But in its waning hours the DC was rife with division, with some members seeking a coalition with the Democratic Party of the Left (the PDS or ex-communists), some pining for the historic center and refusing to join the new Popular Party, and some looking to the right for alliances with the populist Northern League (provided it renounces separatism) or with media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who continues to urge the conservatives to unite against the PDS while still not officially launching his own party.
Reformers in the PDS-led left-wing coalition, which is predicted to win the most votes, see this election as crucial for moving ahead with change and bringing the country into line with European Union standards.
``We are very determined that there will be no one in the coalition that brings back memories of the old-style politics,'' Mr. Scrosati says.
A veritable army of compromised politicians, however, emerged from the last Parliament, many of them prominent political leaders. Among the Top Ten in Tangentopoli:
* Ex-party secretary Renato Altissimo (Liberal Party), for allegedly profiting from a Naples trash-disposal deal.
* Ex-party treasurer Severino Citaristi (DC), for allegedly receiving $43.1 million in kickbacks for his party, according to Watch Dog magazine, published by a Green parliamentary deputy. More probes are in progress against him than against any other politician.
* Ex-Prime Minister and ex-party secretary Bettino Craxi (Socialist Party), for allegedly receiving $121.6 million in kickbacks for his party and possibly for personal use as well, according to Watch Dog. He is popularly viewed as the architect of the national kickback system and is now so despised he is even heckled by many within his own party.
* Ex-Health Minister Francesco De Lorenzo (Liberal Party), for allegedly taking kickbacks in return for granting medical companies privileged positions in the Italian market.
* Ex-Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis (Socialist Party), for allegedly receiving kickbacks in exchange for foreign aid. He remains famous for disco dancing and dining in fine restaurants, though he is shown on television from time to time in his native Venice being pursued by citizens shouting ``thief, thief.''
* Ex-party secretary Arnaldo Forlani (DC), for allegedly receiving $21.4 million in kickbacks for his party, according to Watch Dog.
* Ex-party secretary Giorgio La Malfa (Republican Party), for allegedly receiving $5.7 million in kickbacks for his party, according to Watch Dog. Before resigning in tears as party secretary, Mr. La Malfa characterized his as ``the party of the honest.''
* Ex-Justice Minister Claudio Martelli (Socialist Party), for allegedly receiving $5 million in kickbacks, according to Watch Dog. He is under investigation, with Mr. Craxi, on charges of fraudulent bankruptcy in the Banco Ambrosiano collapse. In a Christmas-time visit to a bookstore near Parliament, all the shoppers in the store turned their backs to him, says a witness to the incident.
* Ex-Budget Minister Paolo Cirino Pomicino (DC), for allegedly receiving at least $2.4 million in kickbacks. He is under investigation in reconstruction that followed southern Italy's 1980 earthquake.
* Ex-Interior Minister Vincenzo Scotti (DC), for alleged abuse of power and corruption in the privatization of Naples' city cleaning, in public contracts for the 1990 World Cup soccer championship, and in the earthquake reconstruction.