Italy's Spaghetti Politics Untangle Strand at a Time

IN his office in the heart of Rome, Mario Segni keeps a huge photograph of tens of thousands of the politician's supporters in a Roman sports arena.

People came from all over Italy to hear the message of Mr. Segni, a deputy of Parliament, that it was time for Italy to create a bipolar electoral system to give Italy more stable governments.

When Segni's proposal was put to the nation as a referendum question in 1993, 4 out of 5 Italians approved it.

``The referendum has deeply changed the culture of the Italians, their behavior, their conception of politics,'' Segni says. ``The Italians are more bipolar than the law that we made.''

Italians used to vote for a dozen or so political parties, which then argued over who would be prime minister, which parties would go into the ruling coalition, and what their government program would be.

In the next elections, however, voters will likely be choosing between two leaders: ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the center-right and economist Romano Prodi on the center-left.

``It's the first time that there are two candidates, one on the right, one on the left,'' says Segni, a political moderate who supports Mr. Prodi.

The electoral law that Parliament approved following the referendum throws a bone to those people nostalgic for the fragmented political spectrum by leaving one-fourth of the parliamentary seats under the old Italian system.

But the rest are elected under a British-style system, which strongly encourages the parties ``to be either here or there,'' as Italians like to put it.

``Anything that's under 50 percent loses, by definition. Therefore, it forces the others to group together,'' says Giuliano Urbani, the former public administration minister in the Berlusconi government. ``This is really something absolutely new in Italian political life.''

The next electoral test will be soon, if Mr. Berlusconi has his way. The former prime minister and his allies are daily hammering away at a single theme: that the Italians did not elect the technocratic government of Prime Minister Lamberto Dini and that early elections must therefore be held as soon as possible, preferably in June. This appears increasingly likely to happen.

One of the four points in the Dini government's program is to create equal political access to television, a key question since Berlusconi owns three TV networks that compete directly with the three state-owned networks.

``This is really an unfair situation,'' says political analyst Paolo Flores D'Arcais, and it goes beyond news broadcasts. For example, he says, ``the idea that you can't use an entertainment program to make political propaganda is considered obvious in the States. It's not considered obvious in Italy.''

The only real solution, in Mr. Flores D'Arcais's view, is for Berlusconi to sell at least two networks, which Berlusconi seems strenuously opposed to doing.

Meanwhile, with the possibility of elections around the corner, political parties are siding with Berlusconi or Prodi.

The Italian Popular Party is a key example. The successor to the Christian Democrats at first maintained that it was the true center in Italy and that other parties must move toward it.

But recently, under public pressure to choose the left or the right, party leader Rocco Buttiglione said he wanted to ally his party with Berlusconi.

The left wing of the party rebelled because Berlusconi is allied with the National Alliance, which opponents say is neofascist. The Popular Party appears on the verge of breaking up.

``The fact that this is happening means that there's a push in Italian politics at this point toward clarity, toward two alternative blocs,'' Segni says.

But Segni adds that these two poles are at the same time themselves becoming more moderate, so they can attract more support.

The problem is that moderation is not happening fast enough to make either side completely attractive to Italian voters.

On the extreme left, there's the Communist Refoundation, a party that gets between 5 and 10 percent of the vote.

``It's a big problem, really a big problem, because they have 5 percent, but this 5 percent is strictly necessary for the center-left to win,'' says Flores D'Arcais, editor of the left-wing journal MicroMega. ``But this reference to this utopian communism is sufficient to frighten a crucial percentage of the Italians.''

On the extreme right, there's the National Alliance, whose leader has identified himself as a ``post-fascist.'' His party has become more moderate but has not enough to satisfy all of its critics.

``They don't really openly condemn fascism, the ideology, the history, the mentality and the habits, the culture of fascism,'' says Flores D'Arcais. ``So I think it's a little dangerous to trust them so completely as Berlusconi demands the Italians do.''

Former administration minister Urbani, whose family fought in the antifascist resistance during World War II, confesses that was at first uneasy about being in a government with the National Alliance, but says he no longer feels uncomfortable.

``I've discovered something, that courage is needed, the courage to bet on the future and consider the past closed. And why?,'' he asks. ``For the simple reason that to relive the past is a luxury that we can no longer afford.

``This doesn't mean, naturally, that we don't have to remain alert to the danger of radicalization of every kind,'' he adds. ``We have to be very alert.''

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